The U.S. Senate Finance Committee has opened an investigation looking for the financial ties between makers of prescription painkiller drugs, so-called pain experts, and groups designed to advise patients on proper medical care.
According to a New York Times report, Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) have launched the investigation as a bi-partisan effort in their roles as members of the committee. Baucus is currently chair of the Finance Committee and Grassley remains an outspoken critic of the Food and Drug Administration, the pharmaceuticals and medical device industries, and an advocate for patients’ rights.
The Committee is investigating how skewed the information doctors are giving patients is regarding prescription painkillers, some of the most abused drugs (legal or illegal) in the U.S. Overdoses on prescription painkillers have been linked to a growing number of untimely and unexpected deaths and serious injuries in recent years, just as their use multiplies in the population. Grassley said, in a statement to the public announcing the launch of the investigation, “The problem of opioid abuse is bad and getting worse.”
The Times reports that prescriptions for opioid painkillers has increased “fourfold” in just the last decade, with more and more people receiving the drugs for any number of reasons. Many drugs like OxyContin and Vicodin are considered controlled substances but in many ways access to them has only gotten less restrictive even as reports of their dangers and their implication in a growing number of adverse reactions grows. The dangers of these drugs increases over time and when taken at higher doses but nearly as many problems are caused when these drugs end up in the hands of people without prescriptions for them. Among the many potential side effects caused by opioid painkillers is dependency, with many patients often feeling addicted to the pills.
Makers of these drugs have been accused in recent years of strongly promoting the use of opioid painkillers for more and more indications. While they were once only prescribed to patients suffering from intolerable pain caused by life-threatening or terminal illness, drugs like OxyContin and Vicodin are popular resorts for arthritis sufferers and people suffering only mild to moderate but persistent pain.
The Senate Finance Committee has informed numerous companies and organizations that lawmakers would like to include them as part of the investigation. It has sent letters to makers of some of the top opioid painkillers on the market: Purdue Pharma (makers of OxyContin), Endo Pharmaceuticals (Percocet), and Johnson & Johnson (Duragesic). According to the report, it was Purdue Pharma which first sought to have OxyContin prescribed for a wider range of pain-related symptoms in the 1990s and since then, that has spawned an aggressive marketing of these drugs to doctors and patients as a viable and safe treatment.
Drug makers allegedly employed the likes of companies such as purported patient advocates American Pain Foundation, Pain and Policy Studies Group, and others which may have established financial ties to the pharmaceutical companies as a means of boosting sales and use of the drugs in new sets of patients.