RICHMOND, Va. — In Virginia and in states across the country, drugmakers that produce opioids and allied advocacy groups are spending heavily as they work to influence state and federal policies.
A joint investigation by The Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity found that drug companies and allied groups spent more than $880 million nationwide between 2006 through 2015 on campaign contributions and lobbying expenses at the state and federal levels.
The groups have an array of political interests that include opioid advocacy, and their spending was eight times that of the gun lobby during the same period. By comparison, groups advocating for limits on opioid prescribing spent about $4 million.
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. Reporters analyzed campaign finance and lobbying data from 2006 through 2015, reviewed hundreds of documents and conducted more than 150 interviews.
Drug companies say they are committed to solving the problems linked to their painkillers.
Here’s a look at where Virginia stands on the issue:
Drug companies and their allied groups gave more than $1.4 million to state candidates and parties in Virginia between 2006 and 2015. When contributions to federal candidates are included, the number rises to $2.8 million. Among state legislative candidates, those who control the agendas in the House and Senate received the most cash from the groups. House Speaker William Howell, who has held the job for more than a decade, received more than $62,500 from drug companies and their allied advocacy groups — more than any other state lawmaker. Virginia’s ranks 24th among states when it comes to contributions from those groups in proportion to overall contributions in the state.
There were 6,655 reported deaths from drug overdoses between 2006 and 2014. Between 2006 and 2014, overdose drug deaths rose 56 percent. The state’s death rate per 100,000 people was 11.8 in 2014, putting Virginia at 40th in the country. The overdose deaths aren’t limited to opioids, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has indicated that prescription opioids and heroin account for the majority of drug deaths.
Pharmaceutical companies have been pushing legislation in statehouses across the country that require insurers to cover abuse-deterrent formulations of drugs, which aim to make it more difficult for addicts to crush or dissolve pills. In Virginia, a state commission is currently studying the issue after a bill backed by Teva Pharmaceuticals was approved in 2015.
Critics say pills with tamper resistant technology don’t do much to solve the problem because they can still be abused when swallowed. And the companies behind the bills stand to benefit financially, they say.
“Our problem is not people crushing it up and doing things with it, our problem is that there are too many of them out there and there are too many people taking them,” said Doug Gray, executive director of the Virginia Association of Health Plans.
The bill mandating the study of the abuse-deterrent opioids was introduced by Republican Del. Kathy Bryon. Byron, who also chairs the committee that’s studying the issue, said there will always be some form of abuse, but said she commends the industries that are working on ways to curb the epidemic. The committee still needs more information before it makes a recommendation about whether Virginia should move forward, she said. Byron represents the district where Teva has a facility and received $1,000 in contributions from the company in 2009 and 2013.
Denise Bradley, a spokeswoman for Teva Pharmaceuticals, said while there is no “silver bullet” to fix the problem of prescription drug abuse, abuse-deterrent drugs are a step in the right direction.
“We can and should … make incremental and proactive progress using the means at our disposal, and abuse deterrent formulations are an important piece of the solution,” she said in a statement.
Follow Alanna Durkin Richer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/aedurkinricher. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/alanna-durkin-richer .