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In public, lawmakers scold drug distributors. Come campaign season, they accept their cash willingly

WASHINGTON — In this election season, lawmakers are taking on drug distributors with abandon, and many seem to relish the role.

“I just want you to feel shame,” one member of Congress said in May to five executives of major drug wholesalers, which are accused of worsening the opioid crisis by dumping thousands of addictive painkillers into small towns.

“Enough is enough,” said another. “We expect you to do more.”

If blanketing Capitol Hill with cash counts as “doing more,” the distributors are fulfilling their mandate.

In the run-up to next month’s midterm elections, the country’s three largest distributors alone have given nearly $3 million to congressional campaigns. Key lawmakers from both parties — including many of the ones who publicly shamed the companies for their role in the crisis — have accepted the contributions eagerly.

According to a STAT analysis of the current cycle’s campaign finance disclosures, two of the three largest distributors are on pace to exceed their campaign donations from 2016 — a notable increase, since campaign spending tends to stagnate in years without a presidential election.

In many cases, the largest contributions have gone to lawmakers who oversee investigations into those distributors or who play key roles in determining health care and drug policy.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) took $5,000 this cycle, topping off $56,500 from distributors and manufacturers before the 2016 election, according to a recent research letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) took another $3,500. And following $23,500 in contributions from distributors and manufacturers last cycle, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has accepted $8,500 to date from AmerisourceBergen and McKesson this election cycle.

From drug companies to insurers, lawmakers routinely accept campaign contributions from the companies across the health care industry that they are tasked with regulating. But few industries have faced more scrutiny than opioid distributors and manufacturers, many of which are being sued in a consolidated case in federal court, and which are increasingly shouldering the blame for a crisis taking nearly the lives of nearly 50,000 Americans each year.

Yet for all the money their campaigns have accepted from those very companies, lawmakers say their oversight abilities have not been compromised.

Walden’s committee hosted the hearing at which members had their say before the distributor executives, and he was key in shepherding through Congress a sweeping opioids bill that President Trump is expected to sign this month.

“No member of Congress has done more than Chairman Walden to end the deadly cycle of diversion, addiction, and overdose,” said a committee spokesman, Zach Hunter. “Any suggestion otherwise ignores his historic efforts to fight the opioid epidemic.”

A spokesman for Pallone also pointed to the congressman’s involvement in an ongoing House investigation of drug distributors.

Aides to every lawmaker contacted by STAT gave a similar response: The campaign cash has no bearing on how they conduct oversight or policymaking.

AmerisourceBergen has donated $1.2 million to date in the 2017-18 campaign cycle; Cardinal $825,000; McKesson nearly $920,000. McKesson’s spending is on pace to match the previous cycle, while AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal have already matched or outstripped their previous spending totals with a month remaining before the midterm elections.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who has not accepted campaign cash from distributors, has spoken of the pharmaceutical industry’s ability to sprinkle cash “like fairy dust” around the Capitol — and to use their curried favor to stall legislation that isn’t industry-friendly.

McCaskill has hinted this may be the case with a bill she introduced to restore some of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s enforcement authority over distributors, a provision that was left out of the opioids bill even though it enjoys support from lawmakers in both parties.

The donations in the current cycle follow a previous trend detailed in the JAMA research letter, which showed a consistent stream of cash flowing to the lawmakers on committees with most authority over the distributors prior to the 2016 election. (The analysis also included contributions from some drug manufacturers accused of marketing the potentially addictive drugs misleadingly.)

Numerous candidates — the JAMA research letter cited Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — did not accept money in the 2016 cycle from opioid distributors or manufacturers.

“The ABC-PAC contributes to candidates of all political parties who maintain an active voice on health care issues, and who represent areas in which AmerisourceBergen maintains a significant presence,” a spokesman for the company said.

Cardinal Health declined to comment and McKesson referred a request for comment on the JAMA research letter to the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, the distributor trade group. An HDA spokesman declined to comment as to whether industry’s campaign donation strategy has changed in recent years.

Even the lawmaker who told distributors in May that he wanted them to “feel shame” — Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) — is not a full exception to the rule.

On March 31, 2017, Cardinal Health wrote his campaign a check for $2,500.

This article is reproduced with permission from STAT. It was first published on Oct. 12, 2018. Find the original story here.