As the current federal Administration under its current poor excuse for leadership continues to flail about incompetently in the face of the nation’s opioid addiction crisis, litigators who have taken up the cause of holding manufacturers and suppliers accountable have been given new ammunition for their cases, thanks to U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO).

Last summer, the Senator began her own inquiry into the opioid issue, demanding explanations for “suspicious orders” and reasons for inaction by major drug companies and distributors. This week, Senator McGaskill’s efforts bore fruit. It turns out that certain Big Pharma players have paid out in excess of $10.5 million over the past five years to patient “advocacy groups” as well as medical practitioners in order to promote the use of opioid painkillers while minimizing the addiction risk. At the same time, pharmaceutical lobbyists were busy in state capitals, paying off lawmakers in order to discourage legislation that would have restricted the sale and use of opioids and preserve “opioid-friendly” statutes. Meanwhile, the recipients of the industry’s largesse have usually failed to disclose their financial relationships with their benefactors.

The industry’s nefarious actions went even further. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control issued voluntary guidelines to the health care industry, recommending that opioid-based pain medications be prescribed only as a last resort, and only at minimum doses. Those guidelines were based on solid scientific evidence – but the industry and the groups they funded raised loud objections.

Senator McGaskill said,

The pharmaceutical industry spent a generation downplaying the risks of opioid addiction and trying to expand their customer base for these incredibly dangerous medications and this report makes clear they made investments in third-party organizations that could further those goals.”

Her investigation further revealed that “financial relationships were insidious [and] lacked transparency.”

In addition to the usual suspects, the McGaskill report names Mylan, Insys Therapeutics, Depomed and Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals.

Last year, the CDC reported a total of 64,070 fatalities resulting from prescription drug overdoses – an increase of over 20 percent over 2016. 75 percent of those deaths were due to opioid painkillers. That is more people than died in auto accidents and homicides. This tragedy has been enabled to a large part by a corrupt Congress and a compromised Department of Justice according to a DEA whistleblower who appeared on CBS’ 60 Minutes in October 2017.

Senator McGaskill’s report may not send anyone to prison, but it will be valuable to lawyers who are fighting to hold pharmaceutical companies and drug distributors accountable as current multi-district litigation moves forward this year.

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.