In fighting the opioid crisis that is taking lives across the country, it would be helpful if the Senator from ground zero of the crisis, West Virginia, knew what he was talking about when it comes to solving it.
But sadly, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has demonstrated that he has little to no grasp of what’s causing and exacerbating the problem.
In an interview with STAT News, Manchin offered nothing but pithy solutions and ideological dog whistles to the White House. He talked about educating people about the dangers of the drug, decried marijuana as a gateway drug, and called for a “one-penny fee on every milligram of opiates that are produced and sold in America” to be collected for treatment.
That’s all very nice. But that’s all it is – nice.
Manchin said nothing of the true driver of the opioid crisis – the pharmaceutical industry’s greed and the lack of transparency in our healthcare system. What this requires is regulation, and there was none of that talk in Manchin’s interview.
And that’s sad, because West Virginia is the poster child for how big pharma used its power and influence to shove drugs down people’s throats. Addiction to opioids doesn’t start with marijuana. It starts with a doctor’s prescription, and in West Virginia, that has been all-too readily available.
Back in October, David Armstrong of STAT News wrote a mind-blowing report detailing how West Virginia health and insurance officials tried to slow the pace of prescriptions in their state, but were thwarted at every turn thanks to collusion between Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, and pharmacy benefits manager, Merck Medco (which is owned today by PBM giant, Express Scripts).
Here’s the short version of events: In early 2001 West Virginia coroners noted a big uptick in deaths related to Oxy. Since 1996 state spending on the drug had jumped from $11,000 to $2 million in 2002 as Purdue and its partners used office meetings, lunches and dinners to convince doctors of the wonders of the drug. Court records show that one surgeon was won over by a bunch of donuts and snacks arranged to spell OxyContin.
By 2004 officials had had their fill. So they asked their pharmacy benefit manager to limit prescriptions or slap a prior authorization on the drug. They were refused.
Merck would ultimately claim that it was trying to help officials, but internal memos from the company and from Purdue told a different story. The two companies were in league together.
“Contrary to the picture of helpfulness and cooperation Purdue attempts to paint, Purdue’s employees were actively and secretly trying to prevent West Virginia from imposing any control on the sale of OxyContin,” the state claimed. The case with Purdue was settled in 2004 when the company paid $10 million to West Virginia. Portions of the case file, including documents about marketing of the drug and Purdue’s attempts to ward off limits on prescribing, remained sealed until STAT filed a motion in May to open the records.
Senator Manchin, this isn’t about marijuana, and it’s not about how opioids are classified by the federal government, but it is about pennies – a lot of them. It’s about greed.
He should be more familiar with the business. Manchin’s daughter, Heather Bresch, is the CEO of Mylan. Her company is best known for jacking up the price of life-saving EpiPen anti-allergy medication, but it also manufactures naloxone, a drug meant to treat opioid over-doses. In June, the Senate Committee on Aging demanded that Mylan explain eye-popping price moves for that drug.
So maybe Senator Manchin does know more than we’re giving him credit for. If he does, though, he’s holding it really close to the vest.