The top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee is asking leading pharmaceutical manufacturers to turn over information related to the marketing of highly profitable, and highly addictive, opioid drugs as part of a wide-ranging investigation.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said Tuesday her office has asked Purdue, Janssen/Johnson & Johnson, Insys, Mylan and Depomed to turn over internal studies that projected the risks of misuse, abuse or addiction to the powerful painkillers. McCaskill's office said it will investigate whether those manufacturers have contributed to the growing opioid epidemic that has claimed nearly 200,000 lives in the last 15 years.
"I hear it everywhere I go - drug overdose deaths, the vast majority of them related to prescription opioids or heroin, are single-handedly destroying families and communities across Missouri and the country," McCaskill said in a statement.
"The vast majority of the employees, executives, sales representatives, scientists and doctors involved with this industry are good people and responsible actors, but some are not," McCaskill said. "This investigation is about finding out whether the same practices that led to this epidemic still continue today, and if decisions are being made that harm the public health."
Opioid addiction has grown dramatically in the two decades since the first such drugs were introduced, as has heroin addiction as access to opioids becomes more difficult. At the same time, pharmaceutical companies have made billions from opioid sales.
Several states have raised questions about the number of opioid prescriptions being written. An investigation by the Charleston Gazette-Mail found drugmakers had shipped 780 million doses of hydrocodone and oxycodone into West Virginia over a six-year period. A study released last week by the Brookings Institute found death rates among non-college-educated whites is on the rise, and opioid addiction has "added fuel to the flames."
Governors and state legislators have considered nearly 1,000 measures in recent years to combat the growing epidemic, including measures to make overdose-reversal drugs more widely available, laws limiting the amount of opioids a doctor may prescribe and bills to expand state-run prescription monitoring databases.
Northeastern and Southern states have been hit hardest by the growing epidemic, though the problem is expanding to all corners of the nation.
"This is a problem that's been a long time in the making, and one that's been swept under the rug," former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D), a physician by training, told The Hill. "It's probably the biggest public health crisis in the country."
McCaskill's investigation is Congress's latest foray into the epidemic and its root causes. Last year, Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act, which included $1 billion in funding over the next two years to combat opioid addiction, and the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, a measure sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).
Portman and McCaskill investigated the role Medicare Part D groups played in monitoring opioid abuse, and McCaskill and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) looked into steep price increases for naloxone, the drug that reverses heroin overdoses.
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