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Blackburn handicapped the fight against opioid addiction

Judy Garland, Community Voices Columnist • Aug 26, 2018 at 8:15 AM

When Republican candidates are questioned about healthcare, they usually pivot with lightning speed to the opioid crisis, with dismissive language for Obamacare and Medicaid expansion. They’ll never admit that both, especially Medicaid expansion, can provide desperately needed resources for doctors and hospitals dealing firsthand with an already massive and growing problem.

I don’t miss opportunities to support Medicaid expansion, even should it briefly sideline the main theme of this writing, which is the cozy connection of opioid manufacturers with elected officials. The immense lobbying power of the manufacturers, made even wealthier by abuse, means we must question and compare the sincerity of candidates, whose decisions may be affected.

CBS’s “Sixty Minutes” has twice run an in-depth exposé of the close and mutually beneficial relationship between the manufacturers and congress, which led to the gutting of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s power to even investigate wrong-doing or go after those found criminally responsible. Thank heaven many state attorneys general have now stepped up to assume that role as best they can, though lacking the resources available to the feds. Too few of us are aware how Representative Marsha Blackburn, now running for Senate, had a starring role in severely handicapping the DEA. With deaths connected to opioid abuse now the leading, and growing, cause of death for Americans under 50, and with Tennessee ranking poorly nationwide, we need to understand what she did.

The admirably thorough “Sixty Minutes” exposé centered on the work of Joe Rannazzisi who lead the DEA’s crackdown on opioid abuse. He was head of the Office of Diversion Control, responsible for finding the doctors, pharmacies, distributors, and manufacturers who have skirted our nation‘s laws. The steep rise in opioid abuse and growing number of tragedies alarmed Rannazzisi’s team and drove their passionate fight to address it. What they discovered was a hotbed of greed and corruption by those who are supposed to be law-abiding players. Doctors, pharmacies, medicine distributors, and pharmaceutical manufacturers.

They found complicity between the three main opioid manufacturers, Cardinal Health, McKesson, and AmerisourceBergen and unscrupulous distributors. Some were fly-by-night shysters at freeway exits but many were established community suppliers. Abetting these pill-mills were the doctors willing to write fraudulent prescriptions and compliant pharmacies willing to fill them. In other words, what they found were not hoodlums on street corners, but numerous professionals acting like drug dealers. They discovered a shockingly lucrative system. For instance, 9 million hydrocodine pills were shipped to Kermit, WVA, a community of 392 people, in only two years. Over a 5 year period, 28 million opioid doses were shipped to mid-size rural Mingo County. In 2015 Tennessee had more opioid prescriptions (7.8 million) than there are people in our state, second only to Alabama. It comes as no surprise that we rank high for opioid-related deaths.

Suffice it to say, Rannizzisi’s team found fertile ground for prosecution. By the time Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn stepped into it, wholly committed to bringing the investigation to a halt, drug manufacturers were already being slapped with steep fines. Many in various roles down the supply line were at that point indicted on conclusive evidence, defendants awaiting trial.

Recognizing deep trouble ahead, the drug manufacturers complained to good buddies in Congress that the DEA’s tight enforcement regulations were “vague and they were being treated like drug cartels”. Why, they just couldn’t understand the Kermit, WVA, statistics being their problem. Certainly not their fault since it was distributors who were supposed to be gatekeepers, keeping records, and reporting suspiciously large orders and such. Confident of easier success with a Republican congress, a Fortune 500s’ lawyer wrote a bill to restrict the DEA’s ability to check suspicious sales and extravagant wholesale distribution, or hold manufacturers responsible.

Then what they needed was a legislator or two willing to sponsor, promote, and defend the bill as their own. Marsha Blackburn and Pennsylvania’s Tom Marino said they’d be delighted to reign in such egregious “government overreach“, even though US Attorney General Eric Holder warned the bill would undermine law enforcement. They approached their role with gusto. Blackburn positively glowed before the cameras, documenting her deed. You can look it up. They shepherded the bill along and got it passed, much to the delight of their generous corporate handlers. Understand well: Fines evaporated and indictments disappeared, wiping out years of laser-focused investigation.

But that wasn’t enough for Blackburn and Marino. They wrote a letter to AG Holder demanding the Justice Department investigate Agent Rannazzisi “for trying to intimidate Congress”. He’s since resigned, but, stand-up guy that he is, he didn’t go down easy. He fought for us. Blackburn and her lot sold us out. Godspeed to the 30 state attorneys general who have filed suit against the true malefactors, which includes Tennessee’s AG and even some of our county prosecutors.

All this is a big part of the reason Dr. Marty Olsen, a gynecologist who treats opioid-addicted women, is running to replace Phil Roe in Congress. He will help undo the misguided giveaways to corporate greed, so well exemplified in Marsha Blackburn‘s record. As will Blackburn’s senatorial opponent, Governor Phil Bredeson.

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