Congress has taken an incremental step to deal with the nation’s opioid crisis. While that is good news for the American people, another development points out the complexities of the situation and the way in which the system works against the public good.
Richard Sackler is a former president of Purdue Pharma, a company facing hundreds of lawsuits for what critics say is its role in creating the opioid crisis. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is among those who have sued, arguing that Purdue used deceptive marketing in pushing doctors to prescribe the painkiller OxyContin while underplaying the risk of addiction. “Purdue ignored warning signs and their own studies while targeting high-prescribing doctors in Washington state,” Ferguson said earlier this year. “It’s time they are held accountable for the devastation this epidemic has caused.”
In Washington, that devastation includes more than 7,500 deaths from 2006 to 2016, according to the state’s Department of Health. National studies have found that the root of the epidemic lies with patients who initially become hooked on painkillers.
As Vox.com explains of Purdue: “By encouraging greater use of opioids for all sorts of pain, the company helped the pills proliferate. They ended up not just in patients’ hands, but in the hands of teens rummaging through their parents’ medicine cabinets, friends and family members of patients, and a black market where excess pills could be sold for a big markup.”
Sackler’s family still has principal ownership of Purdue, and now he stands to profit from a treatment for opioid addiction. He is listed as one of six investors on the patent for a new form of buprenorphine, which has proven to be an effective medication for treating addiction. Buprenorphine is available as a pill, but the new product would deliver the drug as a wafer that may dissolve more quickly.
To summarize, Sackler profited when his company pushed a drug that was instrumental in creating an epidemic. Now he is looking to profit from addressing that epidemic. While the thought of people like Sackler making even more money off the opioid crisis is repugnant, our health care system remains market driven, so it is there that we have to find our solutions. But Congress still must play a role.
Last week, the U.S. Senate passed a bill designed to address the opioid crisis. The House passed a bill earlier this year, and negotiators from the chambers will hammer out a compromise, possibly by the end of the year. The Senate bill is a step in the right direction, but a small one. Jason McGill, Gov. Jay Inslee’s senior health policy adviser, said: “It is an incremental change. It is not a massive change. Let’s face it. With what Congress is right now, getting anything passed is probably a good thing.”
The bill includes a telemedicine grant that would create a physician network for sharing the best practices in dealing with opioid addiction. It also has a $46 million grant program, proposed by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., to train first responders for dealing with drug overdoses. But critics lament that the bill does not include changes to Medicaid that would ease the path for funding and that it does not modify laws limiting doctors’ access to information about a patient’s history of substance abuse.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said: “I know this is far from case-closed. We have a whole lot more work ahead of us in the coming months and years to truly respond to this crisis.”
That work must include serving the needs of the public, as well as holding those who are responsible accountable.