Column: It's time to hold Big Pharma responsible for opioid epidemic

ST. PAUL -- At a coffee shop in Montevideo, Minn., I heard a tragic story about opioid addiction when Shelly Elkington shared the story of her daughter, Casey Jo.

ST. PAUL  - At a coffee shop in Montevideo, Minn., I heard a tragic story about opioid addiction when Shelly Elkington shared the story of her daughter, Casey Jo.

  Casey Jo was a high school swimming champ and freshman at North Dakota State University when she was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, an incurable inflammatory bowel disease. Crohn’s is a painful, debilitating disease, and Casey Jo was faced with several surgeries and extended treatment. Her doctor prescribed Oxycodone, an opioid painkiller, to help her deal with chronic pain.

  Opioids are insidious: the more you take them, the more you need. Eventually Casey Jo was taking the recommended dosage of a 250-pound man. Her family doctor became concerned and tried to reduce her dosage. Casey fought her addiction, but ultimately turned to heroin as a substitute. Casey died last August, killed by her addiction. She was 26 years old.

  Casey Jo’s story is not unique. Nationally, since 2000, deaths from opioid overdoses have increased 200 percent. In Minnesota, opioid deaths have increased 430 percent over the same period. Opioid abuse affects people regardless of their background or zip code. Almost every day someone dies from this scourge in Minnesota, disproportionately women and Native Americans. Eighty percent of Americans addicted to heroin started out taking prescription pad medications.

  Opioid abuse is a health crisis that requires a coordinated response around prevention, treatment and recovery. Minnesota has taken some important first steps. We are working with medical professionals to improve opioid prescribing guidelines. We have developed a system that monitors provider prescribing practices to spot abuse. And we have greatly expanded access to naloxone, which blocks the effects of opioids overdose and saves lives.


  In partnership with Minnesota’s 11 tribal nations, Gov. Dayton and I convened a Tribal Government Summit this fall to develop strategies for prevention, treatment and recovery. The results of this work will be organized into proposals for the 2017 legislative session.

  These are good first steps, but a lot of mothers like Shelly are looking for more, and I agree.

  One state can’t solve this problem alone. We are grateful for our partnership with Sen. Klobuchar, Sen. Franken and the rest of our federal legislative delegation on opioid abuse. This summer, Sen. Klobuchar helped lead a bipartisan effort to pass the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act , which will fight addiction through proven strategies like prescription drug monitoring programs and expanding first responders’ access to naloxone. She and Sen. Franken also are championing efforts to increase funding for substance abuse treatment programs.    

  However, we face powerful interests committed to maintaining the status quo at the expense of people already suffering from painful conditions and long-term injuries. Over the last decade, pharmaceutical companies spent nearly $1 billion to influence elections and attempts to improve regulations, while pocketing nearly $10 billion a year off of opioid painkillers.

  The scope of this abuse has been simply stunning. In May, the Los Angeles Times reported that Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, filled fraudulent orders for over a decade, making $31 billion in the process. The Washington Post reported in October that 13 of the largest pharmaceutical distributors in the United States sold hundreds of millions of pills, knowing they would most likely end up on the black market.

  These companies have done little to address the root causes of opioid addiction. Instead, they describe people suffering from opioid addiction as “ expansion opportunities” and “growth drivers” to fuel corporate profits and share prices. Each year, the pharmaceutical companies make an additional $7.5 billion selling drugs to alleviate opioid side effects, while ignoring the underlying problems of misuse and overprescribing.

  There will be no one answer to solving this epidemic, but we must aggressively expand our prevention, treatment and recovery efforts, and we should expect the companies who are profiting from this “market” to help.

  It’s time these companies are held responsible for downplaying the risks of opioids to medical providers, using deceptive marketing practices, filling suspicious orders and interfering with reform efforts. States, counties and consumers across the United States already have filed lawsuits against drug companies demanding they put people ahead of profits.


  As I heard at the Tribal Summit, “Long-term solutions for substance abuse need to have broad horizons because the roots of substance abuse go beyond the individual person, specific substance and specific community or Tribal Nation.”


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