DOVER, Del. — As the number of overdose deaths from prescription painkillers has soared in recent years, pharmaceutical companies that manufacture opioid painkillers, and allied advocacy groups, have donated more than $500,000 to state and federal elected officials and major political parties in Delaware.
But Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Director Michael Barbieri, a former lawmaker who received industry donations himself, doesn’t think drug companies are impeding efforts to address opioid abuse in Delaware.
A joint investigation by The Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity found that drug companies and allied groups spent more than $880 million nationwide between 2006 through 2015 on campaign contributions and lobbying expenses at the state and federal levels.
The industry’s state-level contributions in Delaware from 2006 through 2015 ranked 13th in the nation, based on the ratio of industry contributions to all state-level contributions in the time period.
Barbieri, who received $2,600 in industry donations while chairing the House Health and Human Development Committee, said campaign contributions don’t equate to vote buying, or to trying to scuttle efforts to reduce prescription painkiller abuse.
“I don’t think they’re getting in the way of tackling opioid abuse in Delaware,” he said. “I don’t see that as an issue.”
Sen. Bethany Hall-Long, chair of the Senate Health and Social Services Committee, agrees.
“They’ve always been, for me, on the side of patient safety in Delaware. I’ve never been influenced to not do the right thing and protect Delawareans,” said Hall-Long, D-Middletown, who has received $3,330 in industry donations since 2008.
Priscilla VanderVeer, a spokeswoman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, declined to comment on the group’s lobbying efforts in Delaware but said in an email that it is “extremely focused” on helping combat prescription drug abuse.
Hall-Long, who won last week’s Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, noted that she has worked with the pharmaceutical industry on a variety of issues, including workforce development and vaccine programs.
“I do know the industry does not want unsafe dispensing of their medications,” added Hall-Long, pointing to successful efforts by state officials to establish a prescription monitoring program aimed at cracking down on doctor shopping and pill mills.
Lawmakers earlier this year passed a bill sponsored by Hall-Long creating a state commission to review all deaths resulting from prescription opioid, fentanyl and heroin overdoses and to make recommendations on how to prevent future overdose deaths.
The number of opioid prescriptions issued in Delaware has declined each year from 2013 through 2015, consistent with the national trend, but Delaware ranked 17th in the nation, tied with Pennsylvania, in the rate of prescriptions per person in 2015.
Meanwhile, overdose deaths in Delaware have skyrocketed in recent years, increasing 142 percent from 2006 to 2014, the second-highest growth rate in the country. There were 1,236 drug overdose deaths in Delaware during that time. While the fatal overdoses were not limited to opioids, the Centers for Disease Control has indicated that prescription opioids and heroin account for the majority of drug deaths.
“In my opinion, we have much more direct issues to deal with regarding addiction and our efforts to reduce that than whatever the industry is up to,” said Rep. Bryon Short, D-Wilmington, saying the addiction epidemic represents a failure of public policy to get in front of the issue.
“I still think we have a longer way to go with the doctors,” said Short, suggesting that health care providers are too quick to prescribe powerful painkillers.
In the meantime, Short sponsored a resolution passed by the General Assembly this year directing the Legislature’s controller general to prepare a cost estimate of including “abuse deterrent” formulations, which make opioids more difficult to crush or dissolve, in the state employee health plan and Medicaid coverage.