Groups Want Senate to Release Opioid Investigation Findings

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By Bronwyn Mixter

Sept. 16 — In a Sept. 16 letter, physician groups, addiction agencies and consumer advocacy organizations urged the Senate Finance Committee to make public the results of a 2012 investigation into financial ties between producers of pain drugs and the organizations that aggressively promote the drugs.

In May 2012, Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) sent letters to Purdue Pharma, Endo Pharmaceuticals and Johnson & Johnson asking about their connections with medical groups and physicians who have advocated the increased use of opioids. Baucus and Grassley also asked seven medical groups to produce information about their financial ties and collaborations with opioid manufacturers.

The senators said they were trying to establish whether the groups have promoted misleading information about risks and benefits of opioids while receiving financial support from opioid manufacturers.

Opioid Overprescribing

“To bring our nation’s epidemic of opioid addiction to an end, we must reduce overprescribing of opioids,” the letter said. “This goal will be difficult to achieve if opioid makers, and the groups they fund, continue to promote aggressive and inappropriate prescribing. We urge you to release the findings from the Committee’s investigation of their activities.”

The aggressive push to prescribe opioid painkillers for common conditions like low back pain, where risks of use outweigh benefits, has led to soaring rates of addiction, overdose deaths, infants born opioid-dependent and other health and social problems, the groups said.

“Opioid overdoses, once rare in the United States, have caused more than 220,000 deaths (175,000 from painkillers and 45,000 from heroin) since 1999,” the letter said. “That is more than double the number of American lives lost in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan combined. In other words, the efforts by opioid manufacturers to increase opioid prescribing have led to a public health catastrophe that may take decades for our country to recover from.”

The letter was signed by 36 groups, including Public Citizen, the Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), American Addiction Centers, Horizon Health Services, the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

The Senate Finance Committee is chaired by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). Julia Lawless, a spokeswoman for the Senate Finance Committee, told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mail that “while this was an investigation closed under a previous Chairman during another Congress, Chairman Hatch believes this is an issue of serious concern and will be talking with members of the Finance Committee on how they would like to move forward.”

Drug Company Response

A spokesman for Purdue Pharma told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mail that the company agrees that “prescription drug abuse is a serious problem, which is why we collaborate with policymakers, law enforcement and public health experts to address the issue of opioid overuse and abuse.”

“We responded to the committee's questions at the time they were received,” the spokesman said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bronwyn Mixter in Washington at bmixter@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Nancy Simmons at nsimmons@bna.com

The letter is at http://www.citizen.org/documents/2275.pdf.