Accusations of conflicts of interest are everywhere in the opioid debate. However, the anti-opioid side does not believe they are tainted – only the other side.
The ties to PROP and Phoenix House motivate members to lobby aggressively against opioids so that the recovery services they sell will be flooded with court-mandated customers.
Yet, here is a senator insisting that anti-prohibitionists are being funded by pharmaceutical companies.
Should members of the Interagency Pain Research Coordinating Committee (IPRCC) with financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry be allowed to continue to serve? Perhaps not, according to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who is alarmed about potential conflicts of interest on the panel.
As the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Wyden drafted a letter dated Feb. 5 to Health & Human Services (HHS)Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, outlining his concerns.
Naturally, a senator on the Finance Committee is more concerned about money than medicine.
Concerns Over Industry Ties
“Many members of the committee appear to have monetary connections to several pharmaceutical companies,” said Taylor Harvey, a spokesman for Sen. Wyden. “The senator is asking Secretary Burwell to provide information regarding the process by which the members are selected, and if there is a conflict of interest or not. Did these individuals properly disclose their ties to the industry?”
The letter stated in part that “these financial and professional relationships raise serious concerns about the objectivity of the panel’s members that deserve additional review.”
The letter also mentions several IPRCC members with potential conflicts of interest, including Myra Christopher and Richard Payne, MD, both of whom are employed by the Center for Practical Bioethics, which receives funding from a variety of drug manufacturers. Ms. Christopher holds a center chair, which began as a $1.5 million donation from Purdue Pharma, according to the letter.
“The facts speak for themselves. There are several members of the panel who have significant financial ties to industry,” said Jane Ballantyne, MD, president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) and professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine at the University of Washington, in Seattle. “I think that probably influences the way they think about the issue.”
Dr. Ballantyne was a member of the panel that advised the CDC on drafting guidelines for prescribing opioids for chronic pain. She concedes that her affiliation with PROP can be considered a conflict of interest because she has a bias.
“We are a group of physicians who believe that we are harming people by overusing opioids,” she said. “But PROP is not funded at all.”
Dr. Ballantyne is intensely involved with PROP but is blind to her own prejudice. Such an attitude makes a person dangerous when they are in a position of power.
Dr. Webster pointed out that as a payor, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is concerned about saving costs on drugs and services. “Job security for a CMS staffer may be determined by panels like this one,” he said. “The FDA also receives payments from pharmaceutical companies and must oversee the industry’s drug developments.”
Dr. Webster said there appears to be a concerted effort to eliminate anyone on the panel who may advocate for people in pain, “because advocates for people in pain realize that opioids are necessary for some people,” he said.
“Nonprofits that receive money for advocacy are being treated as if they are lobbyists for opioid manufacturers, which is absurd. To solve the problem of unrelieved pain, we need the voices of people in pain,” said Dr. Webster.
“They cannot be ignored, or we will shun a large swath of society in desperate need of help. That would be cruel. Would we deny people with cancer a voice in cancer research , or caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s an opportunity to share their struggles and hopes for a cure? I hope not.”