Big pharma fox
Amidst all the talk of discovered emails and tax strategies, an important revelation was lost among the tenor of this year’s election cycle.
In a new entry to their newspaper’s ongoing investigative series, Washington Post reporters Lenny Bernstein and Scott Higham dug into the story of the Drug Enforcement Administration and big pharmaceutical companies, and how lobbyists likely helped exacerbate America’s substance abuse epidemic.
The reporters interviewed numerous former high-ranking DEA officials who were in charge of the agency’s diversion control program over the past decade. The picture they paint is bleak. The advent and marketing of Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin, a powerful, long-acting opioid, kicked off more than a decade of suffering, the Post reported. From 2000 to 2014, 165,000 people died of overdoses of prescription painkillers nationwide. The crisis has also fostered follow-on epidemics of heroin, which caused nearly 55,000 overdose deaths in the same period, and fentanyl, which has killed thousands more. The number of U.S. opioid prescriptions has risen from 112 million in 1992 to 249 million in 2015.
As the epidemic was reaching record proportions, however, the DEA and Department of Justice began to back off enforcement actions on the companies tasked with distributing the narcotics to pharmacies, doctors’ office, clinics and more.
Civil case filings against distributors, manufacturers, pharmacies and doctors dropped from 131 to 40 between fiscal years 2011 and 2014. The number of immediate suspension orders, the DEA’s strongest weapon of enforcement, dropped from 65 to nine during the same period, the Post reported.
The judge who oversaw the cases filed by the DEA was alarmed by the lack of work, calculating one administrative enforcement action for every 625 fatalities by average rates. Without cases to hear, he was forced to send his colleagues to work on other federal cases while they awaited action from the DEA. Why? Because the hard-nosed DEA diversion chief, who oversaw the dramatic increase in actions against questionable distribution of prescription painkillers, was being squeezed by the political will of his bosses and Congress. In the summer of 2014, the chief even said that the Justice Department wanted to meet with senior representatives of drug distributors and pharmacy chains — including those that were either under investigation or in the midst of settlement negotiations with the DEA — to foster better relations with industry. He balked, but it was just a matter of time.
The three largest drug distributors along with their industry association poured $13 million into lobbying House and Senate members and their staffs on the legislation, which ultimately passed this year after Congress was successful in ousting the DEA’s diversion chief. It raises the standard for the diversion office to obtain an immediate suspension order, which former DEA supervisors argued would be hard to reach.
Joseph T. Rannazzisi, who ran the diversion office for a decade before he was removed from his position and retired last year, perhaps put it best when he told the Post: “This idea that (distributors) going to say, ‘I’m sorry I violated the law, give me another chance and I’ll make it right,’ without having some type of punishment, to me is outrageous. Every time I talked to a parent who lost a kid, I’m pretty sure they didn’t want me to say, ‘Oh, give them another chance because corporate America needs another chance.’”
These latest discoveries only underscore the dangerous connections between lobbyists, politicians and bureaucrats and remind us of the importance of campaign finance reform. Only by restricting industries’ access to our government can we begin to keep the fox out of the henhouse.