Senate Democrats question financial ties between HHS advisers and opioid manufacturers
Senate Democrats are calling for increased scrutiny of an HHS advisory panel after unearthing potential conflicts of interest between panel members and pharmaceutical companies, including opioid manufacturers.
The Senate Finance Committee's Ranking Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, has been conducting a probe into alleged financial connections between opioid manufacturers, government advisory panels and a leading third-party advocacy group that subsidizes high-cost drugs for patients.
In a letter Tuesday to HHS Secretary Alex Azar, Wyden called for a thorough review of potential financial conflicts of interest on the part of the other board members.
The Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force, created by Congress in 2016 as part of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), is charged with advancing best practices for treating chronic pain. Its authority was recently expanded to include significant purview over government payments for opioid addiction treatments.
"We have received the letter and will respond," an HHS spokesperson said in an email. "Under FACA rules (and stated in CARA), there are two types of appointed members—representative, or those who represent a specific point of interest, and special government employees, who go through a conflict-of-interest screen."
Wyden's investigation through the HHS Open Payments disclosures sheds light on the fiscal ties binding the world of high-profile government advisers and not-for-profit advocacy groups with the industry. Of the 15 panel members who are required to release financial disclosure forms through Open Payments, 10 reported that they have collected payments from manufacturers, including of opioids and medical devices. The payments totaled nearly $180,000 between 2013 and 2017.
One member received more than $79,000 during that period, most of which came from Pfizer, which makes two extended-release opioids. Others received payments between $20,000 and $31,000 over that time.
Wyden singled out OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma and panel member Dr. Jianguo Cheng. Purdue, which has been embroiled in legal battles over its marketing practices and allegedly helping to drive the opioid epidemic, paid Cheng a $24,600 consulting fee in March 2017.
"This payment appears to have been the only consulting fee that Dr. Cheng received since Open Payments was implemented in 2013," Wyden wrote. "The Purdue payment is also many times larger than any other payment he received from any entity for any sort of activity." (Emphasis is Wyden's.)
Cheng is also president of the tax-exempt American Academy of Pain Medicine—the advocacy group for physicians and clinicians in the pain medicine field—which congressional investigations have found receives vast sums of money from opioid manufacturers.
An investigation launched by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs found that the group collected $1.2 million between 2012 and 2017 from the five biggest opioid manufacturers.
Wyden continued the probe into not-for-profit issues in a separate missive to the patient advocacy group U.S. Pain Foundation, which runs a program called Gain Against Pain that subsidizes drug costs for patients. Insys Therapeutics gave the Foundation $2.5 million to launch the initiative.
The U.S. Pain Foundation query echoes concern about the dialysis industry, which has come increasingly under fire for giving money to patient advocacy groups to subsidize commercial insurance plans for dialysis patients.
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