Image by Tak Toyoshima
Last week, after months of hard examination of the Commonwealth’s opioid impasse, Charlie Baker announced plans to stem the growing statewide hard-drug epidemic. Among the loftier notes in his pitch, rolled out at a press conference on Thursday, the governor is aiming to limit medical professionals from prescribing opiates for more than three days to new patients and is calling for doctors and clinicians to be able to commit an addict for 72 hours without involving the courts.
“This has got to stop,” Baker told reporters, lamenting the increasing death toll. His plan, according to a press release, “calls for a comprehensive approach,” and marks a “critical step toward creating more effective treatment pathways and better controlling opioid prescribing practices for first-time patients.” Based on recommendations made by the Governor’s Opioid Working Group, Baker’s proposal is one of the toughest attempts yet—especially by an elected executive—to choke the flow of junk into the Commonwealth.
But as the new administration slows the bleeding, a cause to which the governor committed and gave significant lip service throughout his campaign, it’s foolish to ignore the legislative negligence that helped foster the current predicament. With more than 1,000 opioid deaths in 2014—the most in any year since the state started counting—and considering the decade of discovery and warning signs about the danger of painkillers, it’s naive—circling tragic—to think Massachusetts can advance without reconciling for its complicity in coddling the crisis.
Though Baker’s legislation targets and was promptly throttled by professionals who write prescriptions, it’s rare for him or any other official to finger the manufacturing sources of drugs like OxyContin—even as the governor cites research showing that four out of every five heroin addicts graduated from pain meds. Lawmakers aren’t alone in their silence; everyone from lefty university types to your disgruntled conservative uncle agrees that American health care is compromised by campaign contributions, but it’s unusual for the pundits and reporters who they follow to lambaste lobbyists or public servants who serve in cahoots with corporations that make billions pushing poison.
The conversation about opiate addiction, in the Commonwealth or any place else, should not be an abstraction; just like there are actual dead teenagers and grieving families on one side of the equation, on the other side, there are real-life politicians who court contributions from a small cabal of lobbyists who represent the likes of Purdue Pharma, the company that brought us OxyContin. It’s a mule balloon to swallow in light of the devastation from which pharma bigs have profited, but even with extensive evidence of past criminal actions committed by some of these enterprises, many leading Massachusetts politicians have accepted and continue to take money from executives and contractors at pill mills.
In 2007, after three Purdue Pharma honchos pleaded guilty in federal court to charges that they misbranded OxyContin, the company settled with attorneys general in 26 states and the District of Columbia who accused the drug maker of encouraging quacks to prescribe Oxy for unapproved uses and of lying about the highly addictive nature of the painkiller. Of the $19.5 million multistate settlement, the Commonwealth’s share was less than $850,000, a minor gesture considering that Mass now spends more than $100 million a year treating addiction.
Not that pharmaceutical behemoths aren’t pumping gobs of money into the Bay State economy. From 2005 to this year, Purdue Pharma alone spent more than $700,000 hiring four outfits to push its agenda on Beacon Hill. As coincidence would have it, many of the individuals from these same firms have helped fund campaigns for representatives who legislate the retail and prescription drug markets. Take, for example, lobbyist Mary Kaysen, who has given thousands to candidates, including $650 to House Speaker Robert DeLeo. In addition to Purdue Pharma, Kaysen has also managed government affairs for companies including Takeda and Bristol-Myers Squibb, the latter of which manufactures Oxy’s sleazy little sister Percocet.
If these seem like nominal amounts of money, consider the totality of gifts made by an operation like Kearney, Donovan & McGee, PC, which serves as a messenger and intermediary between pols and businesses. From 2005 to 2012, during which time Purdue Pharma paid the firm several hundred thousand dollars to flank the company on “policy matters relating to pharmaceutical manufacturing and health care, including sales [and] marketing,” the firm’s four lobbyists combined kicked more than a quarter of a million dollars total into the coffers of House Majority Leader Ronald Mariano, former Senate President Therese Murray, House Speaker DeLeo, and other power players. The firm’s lobbyist Paul Donovan, for one, spread around more than $70,000 in the time his company propped Purdue Pharma, including $2,400 to former Governor Deval Patrick and another $2,300 to Patrick’s Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray.
Of course, the aforementioned contributions aren’t merely in the name of advocating for Big Pharma. Oftentimes, lobbyists who shill for drug makers on “legislation related to controlled substances” also represent other interests. Take Murphy Donoghue Partners, which lobbies for Pfizer as well as for McDonald’s, the latter of which uses the Beacon Street firm to advocate for Big Burger on the issues of “minimum wage, paid sick leave, tax, and environment.” In the case of Kearney, Donovan & McGee, in 2005—a year in which they were paid $64,000 by Purdue Pharma—the Court Street firm also represented the Responsible Mortgage Lenders Coalition. Despite its name, said coalition was comprised of subprime lenders, including Countrywide Home Loans, some of which ensuingly helped fuel an epic national recession.
Governor Baker has opiate lobby pals too. Office of Campaign and Political Finance records show that his campaigns have also been assisted by the likes of Kaysen. Still, even with his background in the healthcare industry and his capitalist pedigree, it’s seemingly impossible for Baker to fumble and accelerate the opiate trend like his predecessors in the Patrick administration. From his rhetoric so far, it appears that the current governor sees through the ruse of toothless stopgaps like a Senate bill that passed on Beacon Hill last year, which established yet another state commission to “review and make recommendations regarding evidence-based treatment programs.”
It’s difficult to know whether the actions of some politicians, or their relationships with certain lobbyists, have actually facilitated overdoses. What’s clear, however, is the result of inaction and of plans that stop short of offending opiate suppliers or denting their profits. In politics, it is considered unethical to accept money from a person in direct exchange for political favors. At the same time, there’s no regulation or rule against filling your trough with pharmaceutical honey and sitting quietly or stalling while addicts die every day. Like DeLeo told the Boston Herald last week, even after 10 years of commissions and studies and lessons and testimonies, the components of a winning recovery plan remain “open to debate.” Telling the tabloid that he hadn’t yet arranged a timetable for considering the Baker bill, the speaker stated a position sure to satisfy Purdue Pharma and other champions of the opioid status quo: “We ought to take our time and try to get it right.”
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.