Big Pharma Turned Patient Advocacy Groups Into Opioid Cheerleaders, Senate Says

By Kelly Burch 02/15/18

A Senate investigation revealed that some patient advocate groups were "totally dependent" on funding from Big Pharma.

a lineup of cheerleaders

According to a new investigation, the five largest manufacturers of opioid pain medications gave more than $10 million to patient advocacy groups, which then lobbied for fewer restrictions on opioid prescribing and the right for access to powerful pain medications. 

The advocacy groups—which on the surface are meant to support patients with chronic pain—“echoed and amplified” messages from Big Pharma, according to a Senate committee investigation reported on by USA Today

"I think these groups were cheerleaders too often... cheerleaders for opioids," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. 

McCaskill had her staff collect information from the five largest opioid manufacturers: Purdue Pharma, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Mylan, Depomed and Insys Therapeutics. That information revealed that the U.S. Pain Foundation, the National Pain Foundation, the Academy of Integrative Pain Management and other organizations all received funding from the companies. 

Some of the patient organizations were legitimate, while others were "totally dependent” on drug companies, McCaskill said. 

"Our report indicates that in some instances they are merely fronting for these manufacturers, especially if you look at the lobbying they’ve done against restricting prescribing levels of opioids," she said.

Both the American Academy of Pain Medicine and the American Pain Society have downplayed the risk of addiction from opioids, the report found. 

"We now know that’s not true and [to] use these medications with more respect and more caution,” Army Col. Chester Buckenmaier, an anesthesiologist and professor at the Uniformed Services University, told USA Today

The American Academy of Pain Medicine and the Center for Practical Bioethics both spoke publicly against the Centers for Disease Control’s efforts to institute federal limits on opioid prescriptions. 

The Senate report found that Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, contributed the most money to patient advocacy groups. 

However, this isn’t the first time that the connection between pharmaceutical companies and patient advocacy groups has been revealed.

In 2016, an Associated Press report found that opioid manufacturers had spent $880 million on lobbying and campaign contributions between 2006 and 2015. The drug companies also connected with groups including the Academy of Integrative Pain Management, a group of doctors that was known until recently as the American Academy of Pain Management. There, seven of the nine council members had ties to opioid manufacturers. 

Still, Executive Director Bob Twillman said that does not sway the academy’s interests. "We don't always do the things they want us to do," he said. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.