There is little doubt that drug makers have political influence that has helped slow state and national policies that might reduce the dispensing of highly addictive pain medicines. These drugs are helping fuel the addiction crisis in the U.S. but also are vital for many who experience chronic, debilitating pain.
An in-depth report published over the weekend by The Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity found that $880 million or more was spent over the previous decade by drug companies that make opioids and their various allies.
The money went to candidates and for hiring what was described as armies of lobbyists to shape public policy in Congress and in the states. Just $4 million was spent nationwide by groups seeking limits on prescribing during the 2006-15 period.
There is a need to look skeptically at such well-funded resistance to policy changes.
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A recent guest column coauthored by the state’s medical association president, which The Olympian published in August, noted that the nation’s leading cause of accidental deaths is no longer car wrecks. It is opioid overdoses.
Dr. Ray Hsiao and Dr. Patrice Harris also reported in their op-ed piece that 600 people die each year in Washington alone from opioids. That includes a growing number who resort to heroin which is a cheaper and sometimes quicker alternative for those hooked on prescription drugs.
Locally, the AP and CPI investigative project found that members of the Pain Forum, which includes drug makers, gave $1.29 million to campaigns in Washington. The forum argues that opioids play a vital role in improving lives of millions with chronic pain.
Our state ranked No. 2 nationally for the share of campaign money that came from this sector — behind Nevada and ahead of Oregon.
Even with push-back from the pharmaceutical drug industry, our state Legislature resisted drug-makers’ lobbying tactics and passed rules that sought to limit opioid abuse by tightening up prescribing practices by physicians and clinics. These took effect in 2011. A state database now helps physicians and pharmacies notice trends such as overuse or over-prescribing.
The forum had spent money in 2007 to show that access to pain medications was vital. That came as the state Department of Labor and Industries sought to require that high doses of opioids be prescribed by pain specialists.
Clearly there are abuses. State actions last month to shut down the Seattle Pain Clinic, which had a network of clinics including one in Thurston County, occurred after concerns about the clinic’s leadership the Seattle Times dated to 2015. The Department of Health set up an information hotline to assist patients with serious, legitimate needs for painkillers.
State policy needs to keep evolving. It must walk on a tightrope — between policies that reduce addiction and those that serve suffering patients — without undue interference from special interests.