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Former DEA Official Accuses US Congress of Protecting Pharmaceutical Companies

Former Drug Enforcement Administration official and pharmacist Joseph Rannazzisi lays the blame on Congress for favoring US drug company profits over proactively tackling the nation's unprecedented public health crisis. Since the late 1990s, the number of opioid overdose deaths has quadrupled. According to a report titled " Dying Waiting for Treatment" and released in October 2016 by the Democratic Staff of the Senate Committee on Finance, 1 of 112 Americans suffer from an opioid use disorder and more than one American dies from an opioid-related overdose every 20 minutes because in fact only 1 of 834 Americans have access to the medical and psycho-social treatment they so desperately need.

Several studies have shown that over 80% of Americans with an opioid use disorder are unable to access medication-assisted treatment, with many of them put on long waiting lists for weeks or months. J. Rannazzisi, head of the DEA's office for the prevention of prescription medicine for a decade until last year claims that the US pharmaceutical companies and their lobbyists exerted a disproportionate amount of influence on recent legislation restricting the agency's controlling capacity against distributors and pharmacies that dispense massive amounts of prescription opiates.

The ex-DEA official points the finger at the US drug industry for having a stranglehold on Congress through lobbyists that have spent hundreds of millions in recent years to influence new legislation and policy in the midst of a nation-wide opioid epidemic. One of the most influential lobbyists is Pain Care Forum, largely funded by drug companies and co-founded by an executive of Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin. According to the Center for Public Integrity ( CPI), this industry group spent about $740 million lobbying state legislatures and Congress over the past 10 years.

In April, Congress passed the "Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act", initiated by the Healthcare Distribution Management Association, an industry-funded group. The new legislation reduces the agency's ability to suspend the licenses of pharmacists, wholesalers, and distributors who are sending millions of prescription opioids down the street. More specifically, it requires the regulatory and enforcement agency to warn distributors and pharmacists, thus giving them the chance to comply before licenses are suspended - in Rannazzisi's words, this represents a " gift to the industry" and a "free pass" for institutional opioid traffickers.

According to Rannazzisi, Congress is ridiculously beholden to drug companies, thus protecting a $9 billion a year trade in opiate pain relievers that claims the lives of 19,000 Americans a year. He also criticizes those senators and congressmen who claim to be at the forefront of combating the opioid epidemic during election campaigns while doing the bidding of the drug companies in Washington.

In July, Congress passed but refused to fund "the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act" ( CARA) of 2016. Senators Murray, Leahy, and Wyden's amendment would have offered $900 million for medication-assisted treatment, but it was rejected on a party-line vote. Senator Shaheen's amendment to include $600 million in emergency funding was also blocked. Upon signing the bill into legislation, President Obama expressed his disappointment in Republicans for having failed to provide the necessary resources for those seeking treatment for their opioid use disorders. Out of a total of $7.1 million of funding for Cara ( for just 10 weeks, until December 9th), Republicans have allocated only $3.27 for treatment grants - about $1,000 for every county in the nation.

According to CPI, Senator Orrin Hatch and Representative Mike Rogers, both of whom established an expert panel for the examination of pain treatment that had close links to industry funded groups, are among those who received more than $300,000 in political donations from the pharmaceutical industry. Senator Ron Wyden who released the " Dying Waiting for Treatment" report criticized the presence of such advisory panels, especially the Interagency Pain Research Coordinating Committee (IPRCC), used to interfere with the CDC guidelines that dissuaded physicians from overprescribing opioid pain relievers.

Wyden also criticized the presence of the founder of the American Chronic Pain Association Penney Cowen, who receives support from 11 manufacturers of opioids, as well as Cindy Steinberg, who serves as the national policy director of the US Pain Foundation and also receives substantial funding from the industry. Dr. A. Kolodny, head of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing reinforced the idea that resistance to the original guidelines drawn up by the CDC is part of the industry-led opposition to legislation and policy that minimizes sales of opioid pain relievers.

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