Dr. Raeford Brown, a pediatric anesthesia specialist at the UK Kentucky Children’s Hospital and chair of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Committee on Analgesics and Anesthetics, has been openly critical of big pharma and the lack of proper oversight from the FDA.
Despite many politicians, particularly declared presidential candidates, beginning to speak out against big pharma, Brown does not think that anything will come out of it “because Congress is owned by pharma.”
“The pharmaceutical industry pours millions of dollars into the legislative branch every single year,” he told Yahoo Finance. “In 2016, they put $100 million into the elections. That’s a ton of money.”
‘It’s really about Congress’
OpenSecrets, a website operated by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, tracks money in U.S. politics. It ranked the top 20 members of the House and the Senate that have received the most campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical and health products industry during the 2017-2018 election cycle.
The website defines the industry as including “not only drug manufacturers but also dealers of medical products and nutritional and dietary supplements.”
During the ‘17-’18 election cycle, Kevin McCarthy, now the House minority leader after midterms, received the second-highest amount of funds in Congress. The California-based politician received a total of $380,350 in campaign contributions, with a large sum coming from pharma companies such as Abbott Laboratories (ABT), Pfizer (PFE), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), Eli Lilly (LLY), Amgen (AMGN), and Merck (MRK).
“I’m really much more concerned because Congress is supposed to have oversight for the FDA,” Brown said. “If the FDA isn’t going to hold pharma accountable, and Congress is getting paid to not hold pharma accountable, then it really doesn’t matter who the president is because it’s really about Congress.”
Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the former speaker of the House, was ranked 10th among members of Congress. He received $222,070, seeing most of the funds coming from Merck.
Fourteen out of the top 20 recipients in the House were Republicans.
Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), a former congressman who almost upset Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in the 2018 midterms, was 18th on the list. O’Rourke, seen as a potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, received $171,255.
Dems top list of big pharma Senate donations
In the Senate, notable names include Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Hatch received $238,289 in donations, with Merck being the biggest donor among manufacturing companies. McConnell, ranked 12th among senators on the list, received $149,113, with Eli Lilly being the prevailing big pharma company.
Fifteen out of the top 20 recipients in the Senate were Democrats.
Gillibrand, a Democratic candidate for president in the 2020 election, was ranked 11th on the list.
Over half of the big pharma money she received during the 2017-2018 cycle came from Pfizer, with Amgen, AbbVie (ABBV), and Johnson & Johnson also in the mix. Overall, she received a total of $151,197 from the pharmaceutical/health product industry.
Gillibrand announced in February 2019 that she and Senator Sherrod Brown (D-O.H.) were introducing legislation that would “penalize pharmaceutical companies believed to be engaging in price gouging without cause, leading to price spikes for patients who rely on medication to treat diseases ranging from cancer to addiction.”
Minnesota senator and Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has repeatedly stated in public appearances that she will not be bought by big pharma.
“In Minnesota and across the country, no place has been immune from the devastating effects of opioid abuse,” Sen. Klobuchar said in a statement to Yahoo Finance. “In my state, deaths from prescription drug abuse now claims the lives of more Minnesotans than homicides or car crashes. We need to continue to work together to tackle the scourge of opioid addiction that continues to take lives each day.”
At the same time, thanks to the U.S. campaign finance system, Klobuchar has also received money from some of the companies contributing to the opioid epidemic.
According to OpenSecrets, Klobuchar received $65,491 in campaign funds during the 2017-2018 election cycle, with $8,500 coming from pharmaceutical companies. Abbott Laboratories was her biggest pharma donor at $8,000.
‘If we don’t change ... it will happen again’
Purdue Pharma is one company that has come under fire as of late, as it faces roughly 2,000 lawsuits, including one by the state of Massachusetts that alleged that it “created the [opioid] epidemic and profited from it through a web of illegal deceit.”
Although Senator Richard Burr (R-N.C.) isn’t among the top 20 senators in big pharma money, he did receive the largest sum of donations from Purdue in the 2017-2018 election cycle, a total of $6,000. Since 2007, Purdue has contributed $170,250 to his campaigns, according to Kaiser Health News.
As a result of the lawsuits, Purdue Pharma is exploring filing for bankruptcy. Filing for Chapter 11 protection “would halt the lawsuits and allow Purdue to negotiate legal claims with plaintiffs under the supervision of a U.S. bankruptcy judge,” Reuters reported this month.
The lawsuit is only one part of the massive opioid epidemic plaguing the country, which Brown said derives from the pharmaceutical industry’s desire to make a profit.
“If we don’t change the regulatory process for opioids, it will happen again,” Brown said.
Adriana is an associate editor for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @adrianambells.