FED UP! Coalition Calls for Senate to Release Findings of Financial Ties Between Opioid Industry and Nonprofits

FED UP! Coalition Calls for Senate to Release Findings of Financial Ties Between Opioid Industry and Nonprofits

FED UP! Coalition, a grass-roots coalition of individuals, organizations and doctors concerned about the overuse of prescription opioid painkillers, is calling for the U.S. Senate to release records obtained over three years ago from an official investigation into suspicious financial ties between the opioid industry and nonprofit groups and individuals that promote the use of opioids. Back in May, 2012, the Senate Finance Committee asked for financial records from 10 organizations, and some individuals, all with known or suspected financial ties to the pharmaceutical companies that make opioid painkillers. The investigation was sparked by investigative reporting by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the medical newspaper MedPage Today. Reporters discovered numerous nonprofit groups calling for wider use of opioids, while accepting millions in funding from the pharmaceutical companies.

At the same time, eminent medical experts, particularly at the University of Wisconsin (UW), were paid millions of dollars to advocate for expanded opioid prescribing. The two news organizations reported that dozens of UW doctors "hired themselves out as promotional speakers for drug companies or were enriched by lucrative royalty and consulting deals with medical device makers. At the same time, the medical school itself has pulled in millions of dollars in pharmaceutical industry money to sponsor courses for doctors that critics say have questionable educational value." Two of the UW physicians received over $2.5 million, according to published reports. When the investigation began in 2012, the Committee was headed by U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.). In a joint statement, the two senators said there was "growing evidence" that drug companies promoted "misleading information" about the safety and effectiveness of the drugs, and that nonprofits they donated to were helping spread those messages. "Recent investigative reporting from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MedPage Today and ProPublica revealed extensive ties between companies that manufacture and market opioids and nonprofit organizations such as the American Pain Foundation, the American Pain Society, the American Academy of Pain Medicine, the Federation of State Medical Boards, the University of Wisconsin Pain and Policy Studies Group, and the Joint Commission," Grassley and Baucus wrote. In addition to those pain organizations, the committee asked to see financial and other records from the Center for Practical Bioethics, which also called for expanding opioid use, and from three of the top prescription opioids makers: Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, and Endo Pharmaceuticals.

Different strokes from different folks

Since the investigation was begun, there have been changes at the Senate Finance Committee, and apparently adjustments to priorities. After nearly three-and-a-half years, there hasn't been a peep about the results of the investigation. Some observers are less than convinced that it takes more than three years to collect and view some records and come to a conclusion. And they point out that it's three years during which the widespread destruction caused by prescription opioids has continued unabated - more deaths from prescription drugs than car crashes. Since there's also been little or no follow-up from the news media, there hasn't been much public interest in the Senate investigation. The FED UP! Coalition group is the first we've heard of to call publicly for the information to be made available. In a letter signed by 36 groups and individuals, delivered to Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the chairman of the Committee, and to Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a ranking member of the Committee, the FED UP! Coalition calls for immediate release of the findings. According to a recent MedPage Today report, a spokesman for Sen. Wyden says the senator "is committed to continuing the bipartisan investigation and making the full facts public." But the spokesperson added that, "Due to Senate legal rules the Finance Committee is unable to release documents or findings until the conclusion of any investigation and the committee's issuance of an official report."

Here at Novus, we have also reported on some other suspicious financial doings uncovered by the same Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MedPage Today investigators. It could have something to do with why there's been no info released by the Senate Finance Committee on its investigation even after three years. Revelations included regular meetings of drug company execs and various academics with federal regulators involved in drug development, all under the auspices of an organization funded by drug companies. The leading pharmaceutical companies paid high entry fees, some running into the tens of thousands of dollars, to attend "invitation only" private conferences with FDA and NIH officials, the reports said. According to data on its website, the FED UP! Coalition was formed in 2012 when several organizations from across the country joined forces. "What brought us together was our shared concern that the federal government was failing to stem the rising tide of opioid addiction and overdose deaths." The group adds, "We were especially frustrated with the failure of FDA to correct a mistake in the Controlled Substances Act which had misclassified drugs containing hydrocodone as Schedule III (instead of Schedule II where they belong) and by FDA's approval of a steady stream of dangerous new opioids."

Our work here at Novus helping folks recover their lives interrupted by inappropriate opioid use continues to show that recovery is not a distant possibility, but a reality that can and should be pursued. And any help from Washington towards a reduction in the use of opioids would be a blessing.

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