Failed Senate Investigation Could Have Saved Lives

The Senate Finance Committee letter that launched the investigation.
Photo by Melnikov Sergey/Shutterstock

In 2012, the Senate Finance Committee opened an investigation that could have revealed a hidden influence contributing to the loss of thousands of American lives. That is, if the investigation had been carried out in a timely manner, if the conclusions had been drawn up clearly, and if the report on the findings had been issued promptly. But, unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

The opening salvo of the investigation was a request for information from pharmaceutical companies, purported non-profit organizations advising medical practitioners on how to prescribe pain medications, and other groups involved in setting standards for prescribing. The Senate Finance Committee sent detailed lists of questions to the following groups, requesting very specific information on their financial ties and cooperative efforts:

  • Purdue Pharma
  • Endo Pharmaceuticals
  • Johnson & Johnson
  • American Academy of Pain Medicine
  • The Center for Practical Bioethics
  • The American Pain Foundation
  • The American Pain Society
  • The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations
  • The Wisconsin Pain and Policy Study Group
  • The Federation of State Medical Boards

Each letter notes that “recent investigative reporting… revealed extensive ties between companies that manufacture and market opioids and non-profit organizations.”

The letter commented that one of those investigative sources, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MedPage Today, reported that financial connections between pharmaceutical corporations and non-profits had resulted in an array of patient literature, doctor education materials, and prescribing guidelines when of course, all of those materials would ideally be unbiased and based on pure science.

A secret meeting between executives.
Photo by Pressmaster/Shutterstock

The letters list many more examples of the same kind of evidence, pointing to a too-cozy friendship and financial relationship between the corporations, non-profits and standards organization.

The letters themselves make extremely interesting reading. For example, the type of information requested from Purdue Pharma included the following:

  • Provide a detailed account of all payments from 1997 to the present between Purdue and… The American Pain Foundation, The American Academy of Pain Medicine, The American Pain Society and so on.
  • All documents and communications from 2007 to the present pertaining to the development or changes to The American Pain Society’s pain guidelines.
  • All documents and communications from 2007 to the present pertaining to any policies, guidelines, press releases and/or position papers distributed by the American Pain Foundation.

The letters were an excellent start to a very-needed investigation. But then what happened?

The Missing Findings

Five years later, no report has been issued. The leadership of the Finance Committee has changed. There has not even been a commitment by the current Finance Committee leadership to issue a report at any time in the future.

In 2016, the medical news website Stat reported, “Over the course of many months, congressional investigators collected and analyzed a mountain of material. These documents and the report that was drafted from them almost a year later, have never seen the light of day. Instead, they remain sealed in the Senate Finance Committee’s office.”

This omission has not gone unnoticed. On September 16, 2015, the FedUp Coalition sent a letter to the committee requesting the release of the findings of this investigation. The letter was signed by the Co-Director of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Baltimore, CASA Columbia, the president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, Director of Community Relations of American Addiction Centers and 32 other leaders of organizations involved in addiction recovery or prevention.

You can read the letter from the FedUp Coalition here.

What If?

Let’s assume for a moment that the corporations and organizations contacted by the committee responded promptly and fully and that the committee had in their hands the raw data to answer every question they had.

What if this information had been studied and analyzed promptly?

What if a complete report revealing any collusion or undue influence had been published as soon as this analysis was done?

What if it was truly possible to hold these pharmaceutical corporations accountable for their efforts to stack the deck in their favor?

  • Perhaps more doctors would have been convinced to revise their prescribing practices sooner. After all, in June 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the rate of opioid prescribing was still much too high.
  • Perhaps evidence of this collusion would have spurred increased investment in recovery facilities for those patients who became addicted simply because they received far too many pills for a minor injury.
  • Perhaps a lowered prescribing rate would have meant fewer people dying from overdoses.

As it is right now, the number of people we lose every year keeps increasing. What is truly frightening about this increase is that it exists despite widespread efforts to distribute the opioid antidote naloxone which brings a person back from a potentially fatal overdose. If not for first responders using naloxone when called to an overdose, thousands more people would have been lost in the last couple of years. As it is, since 2007, the number of deaths from drug overdoses has increased from 36,000 to more than 64,000 in 2016. Is it possible that this report, if issued in 2013, could have halted this increase and sent the numbers in the opposite direction?

What’s Your Opinion?

One thing is irrefutably true: The American public deserves the answers and conclusions that can be drawn from the information requested by the Senate Finance Committee. Until the final report is published, the pressure on this committee should not be lessened.

You can read these letters to pharmaceutical corporations and non-profit organizations here:


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.