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Local legislators took in more than $50,000 from companies that fought against rules curbing opioid abuse

Nick Shepherd • Sep 18, 2016 at 12:00 PM

Legislators from Northeast Tennessee received $52,375 in campaign contributions from pharmaceutical companies and allied groups that have participated in the Pain Care Forum, a coalition of pharmaceutical companies and nonprofits that spent millions of dollars across the country to stand in the way of policies intended to curb opioid abuse, according to data compiled by The Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity.

According to AP, the makers of prescription painkillers adopted a 50-state strategy that includes hundreds of lobbyists and millions in campaign contributions to help kill or weaken measures aimed at stemming the tide of prescription opioids, the drugs at the heart of a crisis that has cost 165,000 Americans their lives and pushed countless more to crippling addiction.

During the time Tennessee lawmakers received those campaign contributions, overdose deaths from opioids rose almost every year, and Tennessee had the second-highest number of prescriptions written in the nation between those years. In total, those pharmaceutical companies participating in the Pain Care Forum gave Tennessee politicians $1,617,631 between 2006 and 2013.

The group also employed an average of 21 lobbyists in Tennessee during that time. The Pain Care Forum was founded in 2006 by the chief lobbyist for Purdue Pharma, the makers of the drug OxyContin.

It must be noted that those organizations participating in the Pain Care Forum have a number of other issues they are involved in beyond opioids so it is impossible to tell how much of their spending was directly related to influencing opioid policies.

All of the politicians contacted for this story said the money they received had no influence on their voting record when it came to placing tighter restrictions on prescribing opioids.

But at least two of the groups involved with the Pain Care Forum, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and the Academy of Integrative Pain Management, worked against repealing the Intractable Pain Act in Tennessee in 2014.

The Intractable Pain Act gave patients the right to request opioids and mandated physicians who did not wish to prescribe opioids to give patients the name of a physician who would prescribe them opioids.

The bill failed to get past the Senate Health and Welfare Committee that year, which was chaired by Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City. He received $8,550 from pharmaceutical companies associated with the Pain Care Forum.

"I'm not aware of that group at all," Crowe said. "I'm sure I received some contributions from being on the health committee from pharmaceutical companies, but I have never heard of that group. ... I can tell you any of the opioid groups trying to stop or slow down that type of legislation would not be happy with me."

Crowe received $2,800 from Abbott Laboratories, $4,000 from Merck & Co., $1,000 from Pfizer and $750 from Johnson & Johnson between 2007 and 2014.

Tennessee’s Intractable Pain Act was repealed in 2015.

The politician who received more money than any other was Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. He received $24,025 from pharmaceutical companies, most of which was received when he ran for governor in 2010.

"I’ve been one of the leading advocates for some kind of regulation on opioid clinics," Ramsey said. “I’ve got a long list of getting these illegal drugs off the street.”

Ramsey received $21,000 from Pfizer in 2009 and 2010. He has received $1,500 from Johnson & Johnson, $1,000 from King Pharmaceuticals and $525 from Abbott Laboratories.

U.S. Rep. Phil Roe received the second-most campaign contributions from companies in the Pain Care Forum. He received $10,750 in total from different pharmaceutical companies.

"I’ve said it before and I will say it again: My only special interest is the people of East Tennessee,” Roe said. “The opioid epidemic has hit East Tennessee hard, and I was proud to be a leading supporter of a law that will help reduce opioid dependence and availability and combat overprescribing.”

He received $5,000 from the American Society of Anesthesiologists, $3,000 from Pfizer, $2,000 from Abbvie, $500 from Pharmaceutical Research and Manufactures of American and $250 from Boston Scientific Corp.

Crowe received the third-most contributions from those companies.

Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, took in $3,550 from those companies during those years.

"(The money) was given to my campaign account, and it was used for re-election expenses," Hill said. "I've always been supportive of dealing with the pill mills and dealing with opioid abuse. I supported the governor's efforts on the (prescription monitoring) database that has now reduced doctor shopping by 10 percent."

Hill received $1,000 from Allegran PLC, $1,000 from Pfizer, $1,000 from Merck & Co., $300 from Abbott Laboratories and $250 from Johnson & Johnson.

Former representative Tony Shipley received $2,050 during his years in office from known groups in the Pain Care Forum.

He did not respond to a request for comment. 

Shipley received $1,000 from Merck & Co., $800 from Pfizer and $250 from Abbott Laboratories.

New state Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, received $2,000 from pharmaceutical companies.

"I think I've been pretty staunchly opposed to opioids," Lundberg said. "Obviously, that's the significant issue we've had in East Tennessee. ... It is what we as a legislative body have been trying to deal with so that we don't hamper people who legitimately have chronic pain, but I think now that's the minority."

He received $1,000 from Pfizer, $750 from Allergan PLC and $250 from Abbott Laboratories.

Rep. Timothy Hill, R-Blountville, received $750 from Pain Care Forum groups.

"Anybody is welcome to contribute to my campaign," he said. "These companies or groups or individuals or whoever that contributes, they are signing on to my agenda, not vice versa."

He received $500 from Merck & Co. and $250 from Pfizer.

And former Rep. Nathan Vaughn received $700 during his time in office. All of his contributions came from Abbott Laboratories.

He did not respond to a request for a comment. 

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