On the surface, it has looked like Congress was finally stepping up efforts to curb the opioid epidemic in America this year.
Yet, a former top Drug Enforcement Agency official recently told The Guardian that those efforts are just “a farce” and that the nation’s lawmakers are still too wedded to pharmaceutical companies to push for meaningful regulations.
Joseph Rannazzisi was director of the DEA’s office of diversion control for a decade and left the post last year. Rannazzisi said he saw how pharma lobbyists spent millions influencing lawmakers and helping craft weak legislation that appears to fight opioid abuse, but lacks regulatory teeth.
He also said that many lawmakers touting their efforts to pass opioid-related legislation are only selling hype.
“These congressmen and senators who are using this because they are up for re-election, it’s a sham,” Rannazzisi said. “The congressmen and senators who are championing this fight, the ones who really believe in what they’re doing, their voices are drowned out because the industry has too much influence.”
For example, Rannazzisi said that in April, Congress passed a law that reduced the DEA’s power to suspend licenses of distributors and pharmacists accused of dispensing excessive opioid prescriptions. Called The Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, the law requires that the DEA warn drug distributors if they aren’t in compliance with regulations and gives them time to shape up. In effect, Rannazzisi said this provision gives them a “free pass.”
While proponents of the bill said it was aimed at making sure the DEA doesn’t over-extend its powers, Rannazzisi maintains that the agency only wants to go after the most serious offenders.
Rannazzisi also accused industry-funded pain groups such as the Pain Care Forum of being too influential in lobbying Congress.
Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) echoed Rannazzisi’s claims, saying that even the government-run Interagency Pain Research Coordinating Committee (IPRCC) has been corrupted by pharma companies who influence the group’s panel of experts.
IPRCC was instrumental in crafting the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention’s “Guideline For Prescribing Opioids For Chronic Pain” earlier this year, which Wyden said skewed the panel to “weaken” the recommendations.
And even though a Congress launched a committee to investigate how the CDC arrived at its guidelines, Rannazzisi said the appearance of pressure on the industry influence permeating Capitol Hill wasn’t what it seemed.
“The industry got Congress to put pressure on the CDC over their prescribing guidelines. That was just a farce,” he said.
Ultimately the committee found no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the CDC.
The CDC guidelines released this year encourage primary care doctors to try alternate therapies before prescribing narcotics and to prescribe them in smaller quantities and doses. Yet, doctors are under no obligation to adopt the guidelines into their prescribing practices.
According to the CDC, about 40 Americans are dying every day from overdoses involving painkillers and 2 million people abuse the drugs each year.
Despite the ongoing wrangling among lawmakers about how to handle the epidemic, prescribing rates among some groups and in some states have fallen sharply in the last few years.
Yet, in many states they’ve remained stubbornly high and according to one recent report, the epidemic continues to outpace expanding treatment options.