Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is asking the federal government to get tough on the big drug companies whose products fuel the opioid crisis that this year will kill close to 60,000 Americans in big cities, small towns and even the rural area across America.
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His chances of success in the Trump era when the administration talks big about this emergency but cuts funding and has yet to appoint a “drug czar” who can get approved by the Senate and do something, are slim to none.
Outspoken and famously independent, Sanders has called on Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate’s committee on health, education, labor, and pensions to hold hearings on the opioid epidemic just as the Congress once held tobacco executives accountable for the deaths caused by their products.
At those hearings tobacco executives at first denied their product as addictive, “but the hearings eventually led to change,” says Sanders, helping lower the rate of smoking in the U.S.
Those actions also led many states to reach multi-million dollar settlements with tobacco companies as well as forcing them to limit distribution, run ads to show the dangers and withdraw TV advertising.
In the opioid crisis, a few local and state agencies have also gotten settlements from opioid makers and distributors but they have been small by comparison, totaling no more than $300 million to date across all companies.
Last spring, for instance, Orange and Santa Clara counties in California forced Teva Pharmaceuticals to pay a $1.6 million settlement after accusations of deceptive advertising.
However, even as the death toll rises, none of the big manufacturers have been forced to pay settlements, and many of them have continued raising prices for the antidotes for opioid poisoning that are bought mainly by government emergency agencies to try and save lives.
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— Rob Jones (@rjones252) February 1, 2018
While some of these companies have made billions each year in profits,” wrote Sanders recently, “not one of them has been held fully accountable for its role in this crisis.
“Individual states have received small settlements from companies after taking legal action,” added Sanders, “but not enough to pay for the costs associated with the opioid epidemic. The states cannot do it alone.”
Alexander’s spokesman told The Hill they are planning more hearings, but even that leaves open doubts. Alexander’s last hearings on how states are impacted had only a few witnesses, including a journalist who has written a book on the subject, but who admitted he had no expertise in recommending what the government should legislate.
Trump, meanwhile, after declaring the opioid crisis a national emergency as recently as last October, has done little, and quietly cut funding for what is being done.
When he does discuss the problem, Trump usually speaks mostly about the use of heroin that comes across the border from Mexico, as a way to promote funding for his expensive wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.
— Lana Kitchel (@sunstretch) January 31, 2018
Meanwhile, overdoses of prescription drugs are rising, drug companies sell an enormous amount of opioids to small pharmacies that have no real reason to be buying them except to make backroom deals to distribute them improperly and the administration’s efforts to deal with it are a joke.
The main agency that should deal with it is the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), but it has no permanent head more than a year after Trump took office.
Trump did nominate former Congressman Tom Marino to be his “drug czar,” and run the ONDCP, but his appointment had to be withdrawn after the TV show 60 Minutes reported that while in the House he had been a backer of legislation that would have actually prevented federal agents from stopping the spread of opioids.
For a while, the void was filled by a 24-year-old former Trump campaign worker with ho qualifications, but last month he was pushed out when it was discovered he had faked items on his resume.
Sanders has had a lot of great ideas that would make a real difference if there were a real government effort and proper funding, but right now that is about as likely as thinking Trump will suddenly begin telling the truth and caring about people instead of companies and the military.
Bernie Sanders is already running for president in 2020, so this will be an issue he can talk about for the next three years, but if you think Trump or Alexander are going to hold the big drug companies accountable in a meaningful way, Trump has some casinos in Atlantic City he would like to sell you.