Top Senate Democrat grills HHS about opioid panel's alleged ties to industry

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR)

About a third of panelists at a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) meeting on painkiller prescribing had financial ties to companies that make the drugs, a recent report showed. A top Senate Democrat is not pleased with those findings, and he's grilling the HHS about the members' relationships with the industry.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) wrote the HHS to detail "a number of concerns" about how members were selected for the panel weighing new guidelines for opioid prescriptions. The department was required to appoint 6 nonfederal members who are health professionals and 6 members who lead organizations for people with pain-related conditions. But "there is no provision that representatives of the pharmaceutical industry are included on the panel," Wyden points out in his letter.

Still, at the Dec. 3 panel meeting discussing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for opioid prescribing, more than a few members had ties to the industry, Wyden said. Two panelists work for the Center for Practical Bioethics, a Kansas City-based group that has received funding from several drugmakers including Purdue Pharma, which makes the painkiller OxyContin.

One of those two panelists who works at the center holds a position created through a $1.5 million donation from Purdue Pharma. The other collected more than $8,660 in perks from companies making painkillers, Wyden noted. "I am concerned that this single organization with significant ties to a major opioid manufacturer had two paid staff sitting as committee members at the time," Wyden said.

A third member of the committee is the National Policy Director at the U.S. Pain Foundation, which has received "substantial funding" from makers of opioids, Wyden said in his letter. In 2014, the foundation received $104,800 from Purdue Pharma.

Two other panelists work for the American Chronic Pain Association. That organization gets funding from 11 companies that make opioid-based painkillers, including AbbVie ($ABBV), Pfizer ($PFE), Teva Pharmaceutical Industries ($TEVA), Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson's ($JNJ) Janssen division. And J. David Haddox, Purdue Pharma's VP for Health Policy, sits on the organization's advisory board.

Wyden is giving the HHS 21 days to respond to the letter with information about the panel, including how the agency appoints members and vets potential conflicts of interest. The senator also wants confirmation that panel members "fully disclosed the financial and institutional support they and their organizations receive from Purdue Pharma and other pharmaceutical manufacturers," Wyden said.

HHS is staying tight-lipped in its response. The agency "has received the letter and will respond directly to the Senator," an agency spokeswoman told The Associated Press.

Meanwhile, Wyden is putting his support behind the CDC's new painkiller guidelines. The agency published draft guidelines last month that recommend doctors consider alternatives to opioids or start patients on the lowest possible dose of the meds to deter abuse.

Wyden sent a separate letter earlier this week endorsing the measures. "The CDC's efforts mark a turning point towards a smarter approach to pain management. I am going to ensure these guidelines are not influenced by the companies who manufacture opioids," Wyden said in a statement, as quoted by the AP.

- here's the letter (PDF)
- read the AP story