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Opioid Distributors Have Given $23 Million to Lawmakers to Ease Their Political Pain

Erik on Flickr | CC BY 2.0

While over one hundred families bury a victim of the opioid epidemic every day, lawmakers are raking in cash from the industry that enabled the crisis.

Over the last decade, the nation’s largest opioid distributors, their subsidiaries, and employees have poured $23 million in campaign contributions to federal candidates — even as the addiction crisis has been linked to record numbers of overdoses and reduced life expectancy.

The 1,340 federal candidates — including almost 500 current members of Congress — who accepted the money range from Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Paul Ryan, who netted over $154,000 apiece, to Sen. Joe Manchin, who raked in nearly $50,000.

The numbers come from a new analysis from MapLight, using data obtained by HD Med and the Washington Post. The analysis also turned up something pretty perverse: the lawmakers who are among the biggest recipients of cash are the very lawmakers representing districts and states with higher-than-average rates of addiction.

During those years, the lawmakers in question issued a collective 2,000 statements about the crisis. But their legislative focus was consistently targeted at demand, rather than supply.

While the biggest share of painkillers poured into Appalachia, the MapLight analysis found that the 10 largest opioid distributors spread their contributions across the country. Rep. Ron Kind, whose district borders Iowa and Minnesota, was the biggest House recipient of funds from opioid distributors, reporting $210,000 in donations. At least 563,000 grams of oxycodone and hydrocodone — roughly 1,000 milligrams of painkillers for every man, woman, and child — were distributed in his district between 2006 and 2012.

Of course, like many lawmakers, Kind decried the epidemic. He cosponsored a five-point plan to attack opioid abuse in 2018, noting that emergency room visits for opioid overdoses doubled in Wisconsin over a single year. “Our drug epidemic is an all-hands-on-deck moment in Wisconsin,” he said.

The legislation, which passed the House but died in the Senate, called for more law enforcement support, expanded access to treatment, encouragement of alternative pain treatments, improved prescribing practices, and increased access to mental health care — a nice long list that includes absolutely zero plans to rein in or punish distributors.

The biggest recipients of cash are the very lawmakers representing districts and states with higher-than-average rates of addiction.

Former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., took $155,635 from the largest opioid distributors, placing him among the biggest recipients of campaign dollars from the 10 corporations. The American Action Network (AAN), a conservative nonprofit “dark money” organization affiliated with Ryan and the House GOP, spent $2.5 million during the 2018 midterm elections on ads convincing voters that Republicans were actually working to curb the epidemic. AAN isn’t doing so bad themselves: between 2016-17, they received $7.5 million from Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), a drug industry trade group that has counted opioid manufacturers Purdue Pharma and Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals among its members.

“This epidemic does not care about political party, social status, age, race or hometown,” Ryan wrote in a 2018 op-ed piece for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “It does not care about where you’ve been — or where you’re going — it simply rips the livelihood from whoever is caught in its path.”

The DEA data showed that the two biggest counties in Ryan’s district received 601,000 grams of pain pills, or about 1,650 milligrams for every resident. He has yet to introduce legislation of any kind to address the epidemic.

Profiting from pain

The opioid epidemic may have “ripped the livelihood” from tens of thousands of Americans, but it has proved to be very good business for the largest distributors, which ranged from ubiquitous retailers like Walmart and CVS to lower-profile operators such as J.M. Smith Corp., a privately held South Carolina wholesaler.

Six of the eight publicly held top opioid distributors — Walmart, Kroger, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, McKesson, and CVS Health — reported more than $1 trillion in revenue over the last decade. The publicly traded distributors reported $12 trillion in combined revenues.

Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, has at least acknowledged the existence of the epidemic and began rolling out a “corporate stewardship” program in 2017 that included limiting prescriptions to a seven-day supply. Of course, a single dose of fentanyl — a prescription painkiller dozens of times stronger than street heroin — is more than enough to kill a fully grown adult.

“We stand ready to work with our nation’s leaders on a solution to combat prescription drug addiction and misuse,” Greg Foran, the company’s chief executive, said in a 2017 statement.

Behind the scenes however, Walmart emerged as the top donor among opioid distributors, handing out almost $7.7 million to federal candidates during the decade. Rep. Steve Womack, an Arkansas Republican whose district includes Walmart’s Bentonville headquarters, received more than $190,000 from the retailer, making him the second-biggest recipient of campaign donations from the large opioid distributors.

Walmart, CVS, Walgreens, Cardinal, McKesson, AmerisourceBergen, and Rite Aid are among the defendants in a federal lawsuit filed by roughly 2,000 city, county, and tribal governments. The Ohio lawsuit points out that the distributors should have — and could have — taken action to curb the flow of billions of pain pills through their businesses, but instead prioritized profits over people. Similar lawsuits around the country are pending, seeking billions in damages for the epidemic that claimed an estimated 180,000 lives between 2000 and 2015.

Reps. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, and Ro Khanna, D-Calif., introduced one of the few bills aimed at curbing opioid distribution in May. The bill, the Opioid Crisis Accountability Act, would penalize corporations with a fine on 75 percent of their profits from opioid sales “during the period in which the corporate entity engaged in dubious marketing or distribution practices.” The legislation is primarily targeted at pharmaceutical manufacturers, but it would also penalize corporations or people who are “knowingly supplying states or communities with a quantity of opioids that the person knows is not medically reasonable.”

Vermont independent Bernie Sanders introduced the bill in the Senate; that version would impose a fine on chief executives themselves, in an amount equal to their salaries, as well as any stock gains. Other top corporate executives could lose as much as 25 percent of their salary and stock gains.

“While some of these companies have made billions each year in profits, not one of them has been held fully accountable for its role in an epidemic that is killing tens of thousands of Americans every year,” said Sanders, a leading contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. “At a time when local, state and federal governments are spending many billions of dollars a year dealing with the impact of the opioid epidemic, we must hold the pharmaceutical companies and executives that created the crisis accountable.”

Sanders accepted $1,165 in campaign donations from the top opioid distributors for his Senate campaign. Gabbard, also a 2020 contender, has taken $14,000 from the corporations for her House campaigns and another $350 for her presidential bid. Khanna, who was elected in 2016, reported no contributions from the largest opioid distributors.

GovTrack, a website that tracks the prospects of legislation, has given the bill a 37 percent chance of passing in the House and a 47 percent chance of winning Senate approval.

Let’s just “change the business model”

The Drug Enforcement Administration data confirms that the Appalachian region has been plunged deepest into the crisis. Seven of the 10 U.S. counties with the highest per-capita distribution of opioids were in Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

In Kentucky, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican who has blocked campaign finance reform measures from being considered by lawmakers, collected more than $154,000 from the largest distributors during the decade. His state had the third-highest age-adjusted rate of drug overdose deaths in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The average resident of McConnell’s state received an astounding 2,840 milligrams of pain medicine between 2006 and 2012. 
That number is still lower than the 3,190 milligrams per capita that were handed out in West Virginia during the six-year period. The state’s pill consumption trailed only Florida (3,300 milligrams per person) and Delaware (3,255 milligrams). Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., whose website has had an entire section devoted to opioid issues since 2011, has introduced at least 19 separate bills to address the opioid crisis, all while taking $49,550 from employees of the six largest distributors.

Manchin acknowledged the political power of the distributors in a 2012 interview after a modest proposal to require new prescriptions for hydrocodone was shot down in the Senate. “Perhaps the chain pharmacies and druggists need to change their business model a bit,” he told the New York Times.

He did have a qualification, though: “We don’t want to put anyone out of business.”

This article was produced by MapLight, a nonpartisan, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that reveals the influence of money in politics, informs and empowers voters, and advances reforms that promote a more responsive democracy.

Written by Caitlyn McClure

Caitlyn is a rabble-rouser and writer based in Olympia, WA. She is a copywriter and logistics specialist for Tiny Pixel Collective, a web shop providing activists and artists with the tools they need to tell stories that inspire change.