Deaths from opiate overdoses have become an epidemic. It is now the leading cause of death in people under age 50. Approximately 143 people die every day due to opiates. That’s the equivalent of a 9/11 attack every three weeks. How did this happen? Let’s look at the history of the pharmaceutical industries’ political influence on our system.
It all started in 1988 when Citizens United formed a Political Action Committee (PAC) with major funding from the Koch Brothers. In 2002, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act was passed which barred corporations and unions from paying for media that mentioned any candidate in periods immediately preceding elections (attack ads). Citizens United challenged this law in 2009 by suing the FEC (Federal Elections Commission) stating it placed restrictions on independent political spending. This suit made its way all the way to the Supreme Court. In a 5:4 ruling in 2010, the Supreme Court determined the Act was unconstitutional and allowed corporations and unions to put unlimited funding into attack ads.
This ruling did not, however, allow them to make direct contributions to political candidates. To get around that, Citizens United filed with the IRS to have social welfare as a “non-profit” status. Opponents hoped the IRS would step in and disallow this status. That hope was lost when the IRS simply stalled and never rejected their status. The IRS excuse? They claim they were understaffed, under-funded, and under intense pressure from the Republicans and lobbyists to back off. And it’s no wonder that the IRS would be intimidated with dark money – millions of tax-exempt dollars to convince anyone of anything that will best serve their interests. They don’t have to disclose who their donors are and can contribute directly to a candidate/politician of their choice. The IRS ended up allowing their non-profit status as long as they didn’t coordinate with candidates or their committees. The last part of that sentence is important. The IRS now doesn’t even have the staff, time, or resources to audit these non-profits.
Enter the pharmaceutical industry and Rep. John Shimkus. The Committee on Energy and Commerce, of which he is a member, is one of the oldest and most powerful in the House of Representatives. One of their principle responsibilities is jurisdiction and oversight relating to food and drug safety. Shimkus also sits on the Health Subcommittee. Its jurisdiction includes having oversight on regulating drugs and drug abuse. This explains a lot of the PAC money Shimkus receives from manufacturers and other non-profit opiate pain medication related industries. Although he professes this money does not influence his votes, we’ll let you decide.
Opiate pain medications were originally manufactured for and given to terminally ill cancer patients to make their last days of life as pain free as possible. They weren’t concerned about these people becoming addicted to opiates, but were only concerned about their liability if one of their patients died from an overdose. In 1999 and 2000, Shimkus supported and the House passed, the Pain Relief Promotion Act that would allow use of opiates for pain relief of anything except assisted suicides. The bills also reduced physician liability for deaths from overdoses. These bills eventually died in the Senate in 2001, but Shimkus received $81,875 that year for his efforts to deregulate how these drugs could be prescribed.
The Center for Public Integrity and the Associated Press investigated the politics behind the nation’s opioid addition and found that “the drug makers and their allies often sought to delay steps intended to combat opioid abuse while pushing their own priorities with lawmakers and regulators.” After all, these groups employed an annual average of 1,350 lobbyists during that time period and when opioids came under increasing scrutiny due to their addictive nature. The industries priorities are simple. They want to keep an uninterrupted supply of opiate pain meds flowing to as many people as possible, for as long as possible, with robust marketing (because they make billions of dollars from opioids) and without any accountability for the carnage they’re inflicting. You see, they need to share in the blame as well.
West Virginia is a prime example of abuse on the part of the manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, pharmacies, and physicians. Everyone in this chain has a responsibility to report questionable practices. And yet, three major drug manufacturing companies made $17 billion by sending 423 million opioid painkillers to West Virginia between 2007 and 2012. In Kermit, West Virginia, with just 392 residents, a single pharmacy received roughly 9 million pills over the course of two years.
Health and Human Services Secretary, Dr. Tom Price, just announced providing $485 million in grants to states and territories to help combat opioid addiction. While this will certainly help rehabilitative efforts and treatment, nothing in his statements either impose or strengthen accountability on the part of the manufacturers, distributors, or wholesalers, or unethical physicians/pharmacists. In fact, his speech when he announced these grants included the following: “Today’s epidemic is worse than drug crises we’ve seen before. But, at its core, it’s just the latest chapter in the story of the human condition — of man’s fallen nature and our search for meaning and purpose in a broken world. The problem today isn’t simply that it’s too easy for people to access highly addictive drugs, though this is certainly true. The deeper problem is that, for many of our fellow citizens, it’s too difficult to access the relationships and institutions — like family, faith, community and work — that make life worth living and the pursuit of happiness possible. This is a problem that can be difficult to describe, and even harder to solve, but it is impossible to deny. Across America, the bonds of family, faith, work and community are fraying and fracturing. Detached from these crucial sources of happiness, many are driven to drugs and then caught in cycles of hopelessness and addiction.”
He further stated “Addiction isn’t a moral failing, but the addicted person is a moral agent. He may be enslaved to drugs, but he is not a slave. He may have lost control of his life, but he has not been robbed of his free will or his God-given ability to bear the greatest burdens in life and come out on the other end stronger for it. The Apostle Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure. As a nation, we can endure this temptation. But none of us — no person, no family, no community — can do it alone. It is only with your help that, as a nation, we can find a way out for every American struggling with addiction. But each of us is more than what we do every day from 9 to 5 — or, for a lot of you, from 9 to 9 or longer. To defeat this epidemic, we need more than just better professionals — we need braver citizens, stronger families and more loving communities.” So there you have it. Braver citizens, stronger families, and loving communities will stop this crisis, not the industries responsible for it.
From 2006 to 2015, the drug manufacturers/PACs, various opioid-friendly nonprofits disguised as the Pain Care Forum, pumped more than $5.15 million into Illinois politicians’ coffers alone. Is it any wonder that Shimkus is one of the top recipients raking in $956,583? Throw in another $1,098,000 from healthcare professionals PACs and pharmaceutical industries to support the 2016 election of Dr. Tom Price and you start to understand the basis for his reluctance to take on the industry.
When confronted on his contributions, Rep. Shimkus stated “When you do the overall aggregate amount that seems like a lot…in the primary we spent $1 million.” Shimkus also touted that “longevity” is a factor on why he’s received a higher amount than his colleagues and added again that it takes money to run a campaign (even though he ran unopposed in the last election). He then blamed a constituent with arthritis who begged him not to make it difficult for her to obtain pain medications. He further acknowledged that there can be opioid abuse, but said there can be a balance, such as more training and education and being careful not to interfere in the doctor-patient relationship. Those statements are exactly what the Pain Care Forum pays him to say. Just last year, Illinois passed legislation allowing Medicaid to fully cover heroin addiction treatment. And yet Shimkus voted to cut billions from Medicaid which would prevent people from seeking treatment from opioid addictions. The healthcare industry PACs would love to see an increase in opioid recovery services; it means they keep producing the pills because the more people who become addicted, the more money they make. The Republications would do anything, however, not to impose the slightest regulation to the very industry making billions of dollars from this epidemic and who is responsible for their intense marketing campaign that has made this drug so readily available for so long.
Rep. Shimkus, we’re not asking you to take medications away from people who need them. When prescribed and used responsibly, they are life changing. We’re not asking you to step into a doctor-patient relationship. We’re not asking you to provide “training and education” on how to just say no.
But here’s what Carl Spoerer would do. He would not cut Medicaid funding when it’s responsible for addiction and recovery treatment. He would restore common sense campaign financing reform so big money can no longer dictate votes. He would put common sense protections in place for this industry as a whole, from the manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, pharmacies, physicians, and those selling it on the streets, to ensure another epidemic of this proportion never again occurs. He would request the DOJ to investigate abuses of our system like these (instead of leaks) and that they be prosecuted to the fullest. And finally, he would do this when it’s needed, for the people, and without intimidation from big money. Carl Spoerer is not for sale and he never will be.