STATE OF AFFAIRS: Opioid Lobby Spends Big In Rocky Mountain States
An Update on the Money Spent in Your State
(August 13, 2016) – Over a year ago, Vertava Health took to the streets to bring you the most up-to-the-minute, detailed accounts of our nation’s drug epidemic state by state. We spoke with the nation’s top leaders in addiction, recovery, law enforcement and state government to keep readers informed on each state’s progress in battling an epidemic that is killing over 129 people a day in the United States.
A recent report by The Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity found opioid proponents to be a big part of the region’s politics, with a scathing amount of donations from the Pain Control Forum. This week we checked in with five states in the Rocky Mountain region to give you a report on money spent in your state.
The investigation comes as the number of overdose deaths from prescription painkillers has soared, claiming the lives of 165,000 people in the U.S. since 2000. Reports analyzed campaign finance and lobbying data from 2006-2015, reviewed hundreds of documents and conducted more than 150 interviews. The AP and Center for Public Integrity found that drugmakers and allied groups employed an annual average of 1,350 lobbyists in state capitals around the country and contributed a total of 7,100 candidates for state-level office.
Drugmakers and their allies spent more than $880 million on campaign contributions and lobbying over the last decade nationwide as they worked to influence state and federal policies. The groups have an array of political interests that include opioid advocacy, and their spending was 8 times that of the gun lobby during the same period. By comparison, groups advocating for limits on Opioid prescribing spent about $4 million.
Last year we uncovered that the Gem State was seeing an increase in prescription drug abuse, specifically among youth, according to studies, as Recovery Idaho showed its first results since its March 2014 launch, and the state looked toward expansion.
This recent investigation found that opioid proponents like the Pain Control Forum, makes up a huge chunk of lawmakers’ campaign cash in Idaho. The state ranks 6th in the nation for having a large amount of the state’s political contributions coming from the opioid lobby. Between 2006-2015, members contributed over $207,000 to Idaho political campaigns.
The report suggests Governor Butch Otter (R) received over $44,000 in contributions and Senator Mike Crapo (R) received $121,000. Idaho Senator Pro Tem Brent Hill, a Republican from Rexburg who has received just over $4000 from Pain Control Forum members in the last decade, said he doesn’t think the donations have any impact on drug policy legislation.
“I don’t remember being contacted by any representatives (of the group) as far as a specific bill at the state level,” Hill told The Spokesman Review. “Nor can I think of any time that we’ve even discussed anything that might promote opioids in any way or make them more available.”
Meanwhile, reported drug overdose deaths have skyrocketed 63% in Idaho between 2006-2014, with a total of 1544 deaths during that period. The state saw legislation during that time designed to curb methamphetamine use 10 years ago but as meth use declined, heroin and opioid abuse increased.
We reported last year on a grant to expand Wyoming’s “Medication Assisted Treatment” program in an effort to combat the rising heroin epidemic in the state. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration gave the state $1 million in a targeted effort.
In June, Governor Matt Mead announced $90 million in cuts to the Wyoming Department of Health budget, including a $1.2 million cut for treatment or drug courts. The Sweetwater County Treatment Court Foundation saw a $33,254.33 (16%) reduction to go along with less money from Sweetwater County and Rock Springs. Only Green River has maintained its past level of funding.
Tighter funding is expected to decrease the list of clients they could take by at least three. The state finances treatment courts based on how many people they handle. The program has 21 participants, which is down from 23 in 2015. If there are more cuts, which is likely, the foundation will have to be selective in who enters the program. The original proposal presented by the Governor included a larger cut than the 16% revised reduction.
If they would have received the 56% cut, drug courts across the state and a lot of treatment centers would have had to close. In February, the Legislature passed a bill to enable judges to assess up to $50 for the court-supervised program for anyone who pleads guilty in a circuit or district court. When there are enough funds in the pot, it could be divvied up to help courts statewide.
The foundation and its program team met September 19 to discuss ways to get local support. One of their strategies involves a committee to reach out to some of the stakeholders in the community to see if they would be willing to donate monetarily to their nonprofit treatment court program.
For 40 years, Personal Frontiers has worked with thousands of people in their struggle with substance abuse, an average of 400 a year. They began in 1976 as the Powder River Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. Its goal was to help people struggling with drug abuse and drug addiction through counseling and group treatment. In 2001, the organization’s board changed the name to Personal Frontiers to help reduce the stigma carried by those seeking treatment, as well as to increase the anonymity of its clients.
Since 2011, Personal Frontiers has served 2,448 clients. Some years, more than 500 people have come through the doors. The agency typically has three counselors, one case manager, an administrative assistant and the director. To serve 500 in a year with 2 or 3 counselors is hard work. State funding this year looks to be down $17,000, or 15 percent from last year. In the first quarter, they’re already down 5 percent of their budget in income.
Personal Frontiers’ doors have remained open for 40 years, but other agencies have not been so fortunate, which increases the load for Personal Frontiers. Now they’re getting the rush of more people calling for help because of other programs being closed down.
Still, pharmaceutical companies and associated organizations largely have overlooked Wyoming. The report found that interests contributed only $33,000 to Wyoming politicians and political parties at the state level. Contributions to Wyoming candidates for national office over the time period totaled nearly $440,000, the bulk of that to the state’s 3 members of Congress.
Pharmaceutical interests employed 4 lobbyists at the Wyoming Legislature last year, down from a high of 8 employed each year from 2006-2010. The number of drug-related deaths doubled from 55 in 2006 to 109 in 2014, the latest year for which figures are available. The federal Centers for Disease Control indicates that prescription opioids and heroin account for the majority of overdoses.
The Legislature is currently considering a measure that would provide limited immunity from criminal prosecution to people who seek medical assistance for a drug overdose. Another bill would allow pharmacists to distribute naloxone to people experiencing an overdose. Wyoming Governor Matt Mead joined other governors this summer signing a compact spelling out joint efforts to prevent opioid abuse.
Individual members of the Pain Care Forum made 244 donations amounting to more than $413,000 to Montana candidates between 2006 and 2015, though only $22,000 of that went to state candidates and parties. The rest went to federal candidates, including all three members of the state’s current congressional delegation.
Forum members employed 10 lobbyists in Montana in 2015, which is down from a high of 18 in 2010. One in five Montanans has reported taking an opioid pain medication in the last 12 months. At least 120 people have died each year from prescription drug overdoses in the state.
Heroin has made a strong comeback in the past few years in Utah, as it has everywhere in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control reports that heroin overdose deaths have quadrupled in our country in the past decade. This appears to be due at least in part to the converting of prescription painkiller addiction to heroin. We reported in our investigation last year that Utah was at a moderate level of risk at 86 prescriptions per 100 people. Pills like Oxycontin can go for $25-$50 a pill on the streets of America when heroin can go for as low as $10-$15.
In June 2006, the Pain Care Forum organized a Capitol Hill briefing called “The Epidemic of Pain in America”. Briefing materials included statements like “Appropriate use of opioid medications like oxycodone is safe and effective and unlikely to cause addiction in people who are under the care of a doctor and who have no history of substance abuse.”
A bill was launched that would later be rewritten by the forum and reintroduced in 2008 and 2009, according to memos. It called for the Institute of Medicine, now a part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, to develop a comprehensive report on pain in America. Parts of the legislation eventually passed with Obama’s sweeping health care overhaul of 2010.
According to the report, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) who helped introduce the Senate version of the bill, received more than $360,000 from forum participants. Former Democratic Congressman Jim Matheson, who represented Utah’s 2nd District from 2001-2013 and its 4th District from 2013-2015, ranked 2nd with $328,006. U.S. Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) attracted $23,500 in donations from 2010 to 2015, and Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) of Utah’s 3rd District received $25,500 between 2008 and 2015.
Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who has represented Utah’s 1st Congressional District since 2003, brought in $3,000 from Pain Care Forum members from 2009 to 2014, and Congresswoman Mia Love (R-Utah), who has represented Utah’s 4th District since 2015, received $10,000 according to the investigation.
Hefty recipients in Utah’s state Legislature include former Republican House Speakers David Clarke ($10,250), Greg Curtis ($12,500) and Rebecca Lockhart ($12,735), the latter who died in January 2015.
Rep. Brad Dee (R-Utah), who retires from House District 11 at year’s end, took in $14,100 from 2006 to 2014, and Rep. Paul Ray (R-Clinton) received $11,300 from 2006 to 2014. Sen. Evan Vickers (R-Cedar City) received $10,140 from 2008 to 2014. Evan Vickers (R-Utah), a pharmacist, unsuccessfully sponsored SB89, legislation perceived by some as a roadblock to a more expansive medical cannabis bill that failed to advance out of committee.
Utah’s Senate President Wayne Niederhauser (R-Utah) received $14,650 from 2006 to 2014, while House Speaker Greg Hughes (R-Utah) took in $6,450 during that same period. Fourteen Democrats also received smaller donations from Pain Care Forum members, with the exception of Sen. Gene Davis (D-Salt Lake City) who was given $7,500 from 2006 to 2014.
Colorado has been at the center of controversy for nearly 4 years after the state’s legalization of medical and recreational use of marijuana. As we reported in last year’s investigation, since late 2012, scientists have been gathering data on the early effects of the decision, and what it means for other states. Medicinal marijuana has not yet been scientifically proven to be effective in most the diseases it was approved to treat, but statewide studies are in the works through various grants to gather such data to the tune of $8 million.
Lawmakers and policy experts say Colorado legislators have been spared intensive lobbying seen in other states by the pharmaceutical industry to oppose restrictions on prescription painkiller sales. Pharmaceutical companies and related groups spent more than $130,000 in state candidate contributions over the past decade in Colorado, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
There have been more than 6,900 drug overdose deaths in Colorado since 2006; more than 47,000 people died nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Colorado, laws have expanded access to Naloxone, a powerful drug that can stop overdoses, and removed criminal penalties, under certain conditions, for those who might hesitate to report drug overdoses to emergency responders.
Democratic state Sen. Irene Aguilar, a physician and backer of the Naloxone law, said she’s not encountered industry opposition to regulating painkiller access. Naloxone has saved more than 400 lives in Colorado. Officers with 22 police agencies in the state carry Naloxone, and drug-dependent inmates in three county jails — Arapahoe, Boulder and Denver — have been trained in its use.
Pain Care Forum members donated more than $441,000 between 2006 and 2015 to candidates for and members of Colorado’s congressional delegation. Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton has co-sponsored legislation to provide more resources to physicians and first responders, improve addiction warning labels for opioid medications and encourage the use of non-opioid painkillers for pain management. He recently held forums on the topic throughout his 3rd Congressional District.
“We haven’t heard very much from the pharmaceutical industry since this issue became a top priority for Congress early in the year,” Tipton said in a statement to The Associated Press.
In an election year, both Presidential Candidates have expressed the importance of combatting the opioid epidemic. Hillary Clinton has released an extensive plan to combat the opioid epidemic and treat Americans suffering on her website, while Donald Trump has expressed a stronger Mexico border will help cut down on illegal opiates entering the country from farms in Mexico and Columbia.
Regardless of who becomes our next President, it is clear that we must hold Congress accountable for the laws affecting the opioid epidemic. Contact your local Congressman and let them know you won’t tolerate donations from the opioid lobby while we are in an epidemic. Do it for the 50,000 who died last year, and the 129 who statistically will die today. To find your lawmakers and how to contact them, click here.