Massachusetts appears to be bucking efforts by makers of prescription painkillers to kill or weaken measures aimed at stemming the tide of prescription opioids.
The drugmakers say they’re combating the addiction epidemic, but The Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity found they’ve adopted a 50-state strategy – including hundreds of lobbyists and millions in campaign contributions – to resist proposals to rein in drugs like OxyContin, Vicodin and fentanyl helping fuel the nation’s overdose crisis.
Instead, Massachusetts this year passed one of the country’s toughest laws intended to curb opioid-related deaths.
Between 2006 and 2015, the drugmakers and their allies contributed more than $122,000 to state candidates and parties in Massachusetts, though data for 2015 is not complete.
That may sound like a hefty sum, but it ranks Massachusetts 46th compared to other states.
Among direct contributions to elected officials in Massachusetts. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has received more than $16,000 from the drugmakers and their allies going back to 2009. That’s a relatively small amount considering Baker now has nearly $4 million in his campaign account after nearly depleting the account during his 2014 campaign.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a Democrat, has received about $3,600 in similar donations since 2006. Senate President Stan Rosenberg, a Democrat, has received $200. Another top Democrat – Attorney General Maura Healey – has received $750.
Those relatively low numbers may not come as a surprise. Massachusetts – hit hard by the opioid overdose epidemic – has worked to pass tough restrictions on the drugs.
In March, Baker signed what he called the most comprehensive law in the nation to combat opioid addiction, including a seven-day limit on first-time prescriptions for opiate painkillers.
The law also requires overdose victims seeking help at hospital emergency rooms to be evaluated in 24 hours, allows patients to fill only part of their painkiller prescriptions at a time, requires schools to verbally screen students for potential drug abuse and provides doctors with information on non-opioid, pain management options.
The law also requires doctors and other prescribers to check the state’s Prescription Monitoring Program each time they prescribe an opioid to make sure patients are not seeking multiple prescriptions.
Baker initially proposed tougher measures, including a three-day limit on first-time prescriptions for opiate painkillers and allowing doctors to commit patients involuntarily to drug treatment facilities for up to 72 hours if they’re considered an immediate danger.
The industry says it’s also committed to solving the problems linked to its painkillers, including encouraging more cautious prescribing.
“We and our members stand with patients, providers, law enforcement, policymakers and others in calling for and supporting national policies and action to address opioid abuse,” the industry group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America said.
Overdose deaths have spiked in Massachusetts in recent years, with 1,379 unintentional, opioid-related deaths recorded last year alone.
The state has also increased penalties on fentanyl, a synthetic opiate estimated to be 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.
In 2015, Healey pushed for legislation – later signed into law by Baker – making trafficking of fentanyl a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Even with the clampdown, overdose deaths related to fentanyl appear to be on the rise in Massachusetts.
Preliminary data for the first half of 2016 released by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health found that 66 percent of 2016’s confirmed opioid-related overdose deaths showed a toxicology screen that tested positive for fentanyl, up from 57 percent in 2015.
Efforts to restrict access to powerful opioid painkillers go back to 2014, when former Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick pushed a first-in-the-nation ban of the drug Zohydro, arguing the pill could add to the state’s opioid abuse epidemic.
A federal judge blocked the ban, noting the federal Food and Drug Administration had approved the drug.
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