I’ve heard from families across Missouri who’ve lost loved ones to the opioid epidemic, and many others who’ve been forced to confront addiction head-on. And when I go to Washington, I always carry their stories with me.
So last year, when I became the top Democrat on the Senate’s main oversight committee, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work to tackle this issue. I wanted to see if I could get to the bottom of what was taking the lives of so many Missourians.
I decided to launch the largest ever congressional investigation into opioid manufacturers and distributors—to try to figure out what role those companies had in fueling the opioid epidemic.
What I found was shocking.
I discovered that some pharmaceutical executives created complicated strategies to push opioids onto people who had no business taking them. My investigation featured a phone call where an employee of one company pretended to call from a woman’s doctor’s office to get a pharmacy to give the woman a powerful fentanyl medication. She later died from an overdose. The same company aggressively used ‘speakers programs’ to pay physicians to discuss its fentanyl drug with colleagues—but in some cases these programs had no safety content and no true educational purpose.
And the opioid manufacturers didn’t stop with increasing sales—they tried to rig the whole system to line their pockets.
Between 2012 and 2017, a handful of leading opioid manufacturers spent millions of dollars on third-party advocacy groups that downplayed addiction risks and endorsed opioid use for the long-term treatment of chronic pain—an approach not backed up by medical science—which contributed to opioid addiction in Missouri and across the country.
As the opioid epidemic devastated communities in our state, the top three opioid distributors together shipped around 1.6 billion dosage units of opioid products to Missouri in the last six years. That’s 260 doses for every man, woman, and child in Missouri.
Getting the full story on the opioid epidemic hasn’t always been easy, and big pharma has often fought me tooth and nail along the way. More than one company has tried to stonewall me in an effort to avoid oversight and accountability. Others have attacked me publicly to try to stop my investigation and keep their hold over Congress. But I’ll never stop fighting for Missourians, even if it means taking the big drug companies head-on.
My investigation hasn’t solved the opioid crisis, but it’s shed light on how this epidemic got started and begun the long process of providing some accountability for anyone that placed financial profits ahead of the well-being of Missourians. And I’ll continue investigating until I’m satisfied that every pharmaceutical company or drug distributor that engaged in unethical or illegal behavior is exposed.
U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill is the senior senator from Missouri.