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A lone senator just declared war on America’s biggest opioid makers

A leading Senate Democrat wants to know whether opioid makers have something to hide.

On Tuesday, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill demanded a wide range of documents from five leading opioid manufacturers in an attempt to determine whether the pharmaceuticals companies knowingly hooked Americans on powerful painkillers in order to increase profits.

“There are some similar comparisons to the early days investigating the health risks related to tobacco, but we are just at the beginning,” said McCaskill, who launched the inquiry as the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.


McCaskill sent letters to the heads of Purdue Pharma, Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., Insys, Mylan, and Depomed asking for information including internal or third-party risk estimates on opioid use, marketing plans to both consumers and physicians, and quotas for sales reps.

As a member of the minority party, however, McCaskill does not have subpoena power to compel the companies to actually produce the documents. The investigation could be damaging to the companies regardless, and McCaskill says she believes Republicans, whose constituents have also been greatly affected by the epidemic, will step up with subpoena power if the companies do not cooperate.

But Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the committee chairman, has yet to sign on to the investigation — and his spokesperson did not appear to share McCaskill’s optimism about Republicans joining her.

“Contrary to the committee’s longstanding bipartisan traditions, Senator McCaskill chose to make her requests unilaterally despite widespread interest in coming together to address the root causes of America’s opioid addiction,” Johnson spokesperson Brittni Palke told USA Today.

President Donald Trump pledged during last year’s campaign to end the epidemic and is expected to sign an executive order establishing a commission to address it. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who spoke frequently about the opioid epidemic while running for president, is reportedly set to head the effort.

Sales of prescription opioids nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2014, according to the CDC. A 2016 investigation by the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, a state hit particularly hard by opioid addiction, found that in the previous six years drug wholesalers had shipped 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to West Virginia alone — the equivalent of 433 pills for every person in the state.

In 2012, the Senate Finance Committee conducted a narrower bipartisan investigation into opioid manufacturers’ relationships with other groups meant to establish opioid use guidelines. But after Republicans took back the Senate in 2014, the investigation was never completed.