Opinion: Hold big pharma, Congress accountable for opioid epidemic, says 21st Congressional candidate
Wednesday, January 24, 2018 - 9:18 am


To the Editor:

Between 2014 and 2015, opioid deaths tripled in Jefferson County, St. Lawrence County, and Washington County. The statistics across the North Country are alarming.

How did an epidemic emerge, almost overnight, despite the fact that opiates have been around for millennia? Big Pharma and Congress.

In 1995, Big Pharma launched a massive marketing campaign to convince Congress, regulators, and the medical community that prescription opioids were suitable for long-term use. Biased third-parties, such as the American Association of Pain Medicine, disseminated false and misleading research on the long-term use of prescription opioids.

These tactics were similarly employed by tobacco companies in the 20th century. OxyContin was the bridge to heroin. The drug, a close cousin to heroin, had a time-release formula easily overridden by crushing the pills. Prescriptions skyrocketed from about 670,000 in 1997 to about 6.2 million by 2002. In 2010, Purdue Pharma pulled OxyContin from the market and replaced it with an abuse-deterrent version that could not be crushed.

At the same time, crackdowns on pill-mills, and state-level prescription drug monitoring programs made it exceedingly costly to obtain prescription opioids. These concurrent changes resulted in a shift towards a cheaper substitute: Heroin.

Our communities are disproportionately affected by this health crisis. Economic hardship, combined with limited health care access, has created a recipe for disaster. Resource strapped doctors historically relied too heavily on opioids for pain management. The lack of health care infrastructure limited access to treatment options, such as methadone, buprenorphine, naltrexone, and behavioral therapy.

Medicaid expansion has been an important step towards improving treatment access. It also greatly improved access to naloxone (Narcan), which is a vital tool in preventing overdose deaths. Congress’ proposed Medicaid cuts will cripple our communities.

Elise Stefanik has voted numerous times in favor of these cuts. She is not working for us. She’s actively working against us. Drug companies spend more than any industry on lobbying Congress: nearly $2.5 billion in the past decade. Ninety percent of the House of Representatives receives campaign contributions from Big Pharma. The single largest single recipient: Speaker Paul Ryan, with donations nearing $400,000.

Elise Stefanik, his protégé, has similarly accepted tens of thousands from the pharmaceutical/healthcare product industry. She is a Paul Ryan rubber stamp, and he is a rubber stamp for Big Pharma. No industry requires closer scrutiny. We should demand that our elected officials refuse contributions from the pharmaceutical industry. Its influence should not enter the halls of Congress. Too many lives are at stake, and Big Pharma cannot be trusted.

Congress’ Bipartisan Heroin Task Force recently unveiled a suite of legislation seeking to address the opioid epidemic. These proposals do nothing to hold Big Pharma accountable. A half-baked effort is an injustice to the lives lost, families torn apart, and communities destroyed.

Our response must be comprehensive and fully-funded: treatment, prevention, research, improved rural health care, and criminal justice reform. This will be expensive, but the cost of inaction is much greater. Big Pharma must help fix the problem it created, and Congress should make that happen. The opioid epidemic cost our nation an estimated $504 billion in 2015.

The civil justice system is a vehicle through which we can require Big Pharma to aid in the road to recovery. Our small plaintiffs firm is part of nationwide litigation, in which we are representing counties in

Upstate New York affected by the opioid epidemic. Unlike Congress, we are committed to holding Big Pharma accountable.

Our Nation’s first drug czar, Harry Anslinger, stated in 1946 that “opium, wherever produced, will always seek a consumer.” The century-old war on drugs has failed. We need to focus on preventing addiction and providing treatment. Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) has proven to be an effective tool to connect opioid users with treatment.

I am proud to have worked for former Congressman Michael E. McMahon. In his current capacity as District Attorney for Richmond County, McMahon is leading the nation with a diversion program that sends users to treatment and social services, instead of putting them behind bars.

There is no panacea. Each part of the solution must acknowledge that the opioid epidemic is, first and foremost, a human health issue. If Big Pharma and Congress refuse to acknowledge their degree of fault, then our efforts to save a generation of addicts will undoubtedly fall short.

Don Boyajian

Democratic candidate in New York’s 21st Congressional District