Report Alleges Opioid Makers Bankrolled Patient Groups

By Pat Anson, Editor

U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) has released a scathing report that is sharply critical of patient advocacy groups and medical pain societies for accepting money from opioid manufacturers.

The report found that Purdue Pharma, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Mylan, Depomed and Insys Therapeutics provided nearly $9 million to over a dozen non-profits and medical societies from 2012 to 2017.  In many cases, the amount of the donations was not fully disclosed by the recipients.

“These financial relationships were insidious, lacked transparency, and are one of the many factors that have resulted in arguably the most deadly drug epidemic in American history,” McCaskill's report alleges.

    Opioid Maker Payments to Advocacy Groups

  • Purdue Pharma              $4,153,000
  • Insys Therapeutics         $3,146,000
  • Depomed                        $1,071,000
  • Janssen                             $465,000
  • Mylan                                  $20,250

Over the same five year period, physicians affiliated with the advocacy groups and medical societies accepted more than $1.6 million in payments from the opioid manufacturers.  

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McCaskill, who is the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has long been critical of opioid prescribing practices and the role they played in fueling the so-called opioid epidemic.  Her report suggests that advocacy groups that criticized the CDC’s 2016 opioid prescribing guidelines did so to curry favor with drug makers -- not because of the well-documented harm the guidelines were causing pain patients.  

“Initiatives from the groups in this report often echoed and amplified messages favorable to increased opioid use — and ultimately, the financial interests of opioid manufacturers. These groups have issued guidelines and policies minimizing the risk of opioid addiction and promoting opioids for chronic pain, lobbied to change laws directed at curbing opioid use, and argued against accountability for physicians and industry executives responsible for overprescription and misbranding,” the report found.

"The fact that these same manufacturers provided millions of dollars to the groups described below suggests, at the very least, a direct link between corporate donations and the advancement of opioids friendly messaging. By aligning medical culture with industry goals in this way, many of the groups described in this report may have played a significant role in creating the necessary conditions for the U.S. opioids epidemic."   

Top 10 Recipients of Funding from Opioid Makers

  1. U.S. Pain Foundation                                                      $2.922,000
  2. American Academy of Integrative Pain Management     $1,265,000
  3. American Academy of Pain Medicine                              $1,199,000
  4. American Pain Society                                                       $962,000
  5. National Pain Foundation                                                   $562,000
  6. Washington Legal Foundation                                           $500,000
  7. American Chronic Pain Association                                   $417,000
  8. American Society of Pain Management Nursing                $323,000
  9. AAPM Foundation                                                              $304,000
  10. Center for Practical Bioethics                                             $163,000

"Sen. McCaskill and the others haven’t spent the necessary time talking to us to understand how we do things and what we have to offer," Bob Twillman, PhD, Executive Director of the American Academy of Integrative Pain Management said in a statement. "It appears that they’ve simply looked at how much money we got from a set of pharma companies, constructed a narrative about what that means, and published it."

Perhaps the most surprising detail in the report is the amount of money Insys Therapeutics gave to the U.S. Pain Foundation – over $3.1 million --- with $2.5 million paid in 2017 alone. Insys is the manufacturer of Subsys, a potent fentanyl-based spray that has been blamed for hundreds of overdose deaths.

Former Insys executives and sales representatives have been charged with racketeering and bribing doctors to prescribe Subsys off label to non-cancer patients. The Arizona drug maker has also been accused of misleading and defrauding insurance companies to pay for Subsys, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars for each 30-day prescription.

U.S. Pain founder and president Paul Gileno released a statement defending his non-profit's acceptance of the Insys money. He said the funds were used by the organization to fund a co-pay assistance program for cancer patients.   

"This funding, like any funding we receive, does not influence our values. When it comes to opioids, we believe both that people with legitimate pain have a right to effective care and that systematic changes must be made to address the ongoing opioid crisis," Gileno said.

McCaskill’s report makes no mention of the increasing role played by illegal opioids, such as heroin and illicit fentanyl, in fueling the opioid epidemic. A recent CDC report blamed illicit fentanyl for over half of the overdoses in ten states -- including McCaskill's home state of Missouri.  

Law Firms Major Donors to McCaskill Campaign

According to OpenSecrets.org, McCaskill has received over $6 million in campaign donations from law firms since 2005, including some currently involved in litigation against opioid manufacturers. Contributors affiliated with the law firm of Simmons Hanly Conroy have donated over $300,000 to McCaskill, who is running for re-election this year.

Simmons Hanly Conroy represents dozens of states, counties and cities that are suing Purdue Pharma and other drug makers over their marketing of opioids, and would pocket one-third of the proceeds from any settlement, according to reports.

A statement on the Simmons Hanly Conroy website claims the law firm "effectively invented large-scale, multi-defendant opioid litigation" and is a "trusted ally to local and state governments who seek justice and reprieve from the often debilitating costs associated with fighting the opioid crisis."

According to a survey of over 3,100 patients by Pain News Network and the International Pain Foundation, the CDC guidelines have reduced access to pain care, harmed many patients and caused some to consider suicide. Over 70 percent said their opioid medication had been reduced or cutoff by doctors, and 11 percent said they had obtained opioids illegally for pain relief since the guidelines came out.