Big Pharma's "Stranglehold" on Congress Worsening Opioid Epidemic

"There is no question that the powerful opioid manufacturers have a disproportionate voice, a disproportionate amount of influence," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). (Photo: John Twohig/cc/flickr)

Big Pharma's "Stranglehold" on Congress Worsening Opioid Epidemic

Former DEA official tells the Guardian how hundreds of millions are being spent to protect pharmaceutical industry

If it seems like Big Pharma has escaped accountability for its role in perpetuating the nation's deadly opioid epidemic, those suspicions are not unfounded.

According to a former top Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official, the industry's influence over Congress has successfully quashed efforts to regulate the pharmaceutical drug market aiding an unprecedented addiction to legal drugs.

"When you sit with a parent who can't understand why there's so many pharmaceuticals out in the illicit marketplace, and why isn't the government doing anything, well the DEA was doing something. Unfortunately what we're trying to do is thwarted by people who are writing laws," Joseph Rannazzisi, who for 10 years served as head of the DEA's Diversion Control Division, told the Guardian.

In an exclusive investigation published on Monday, the Guardian, with Rannazzisi's help, explains how Congress turned its back on suffering families and, under the guise of combating the national epidemic, has routinely passed legislation that effectively shields the industry.

One such law is the recently-passed Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, which "requires the DEA to warn pharmacies and distributors if they are in breach of regulations"--namely "crooked doctors and pharmacists" in suspicion of over-prescribing prescription drugs--"and to give them a chance to comply before licenses are withdrawn," the Guardian reports.

Rannazzisi declared the new law a "gift to the industry," explaining how it does neither of the things it purports to do. "This doesn't ensure patient access and it doesn't help drug enforcement at all," he said. "What this bill does is take away DEA's ability to go after a pharmacist, a wholesaler, manufacturer or distributor."

"The bill passed because 'Big Pharma' wanted it to pass," he added. "When I was in charge what I tried to do was explain to my investigators and my agents that our job was to regulate the industry and they're not going to like being regulated."

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The Washington Post has also been reporting on the drop in enforcement actions against pharmaceutical distributors, dubbed "pill mills," which it said was due in part to "resistance from higher-level Justice Department officials who were being heavily lobbied by the wholesalers."

"Congress would rather listen to people who had a profit motive rather than a public health and safety motive."
--Joseph Rannazzisi

Indeed, as the Guardian points out, the industry "has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in lobbying to stave off measures to reduce prescriptions and therefore sales of opioid painkillers."

The Guardian continues:

Among the most influential drug industry groups is the Pain Care Forum, co-founded by a top executive of Purdue Pharma - the manufacturer of the opioid which unleashed the addiction epidemic, OxyContin--and largely funded by pharmaceutical companies. It spent $740m lobbying Congress and state legislatures over the past decade according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Recipients of political donations from the industry included Senator Orrin Hatch, chairman of the finance committee, who took $360,000 and Representative Mike Rogers, who received more than $300,000, according to the CPI.

Both Hatch and Rogers were reportedly "instrumental in legislation establishing a panel to examine treatment of pain that critics said had close ties to industry-funded groups."

The problem of industry-influenced "pain management" panels was also highlighted earlier this year by Intercept reporter Lee Fang, who uncovered Big Pharma's attempt to influence recently reissued guidelines from Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on opioid prescriptions.

One lawmaker who has been a vocal critical of this industry collusion is Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who said, "There is no question that the powerful opioid manufacturers have a disproportionate voice, a disproportionate amount of influence, in these debates."

"Congress would rather listen to people who had a profit motive rather than a public health and safety motive," said Rannazzisi. "As long as the industry has this stranglehold through lobbyists, nothing's going to change."

According to (pdf) the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "[s]ince 1999, the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids--including prescription opioid pain relievers and heroin--nearly quadrupled," as over 165,000 people have died from prescription opioid overdoses.

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