California representatives call for congressional investigation into Purdue Pharma and other opioid makers

Two California representatives called Monday for a congressional investigation of opioid manufacturers, citing a Los Angeles Times investigation that found that the maker of OxyContin collected extensive evidence of criminal trafficking of its drug but in many cases did not alert law enforcement.

Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), both members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a letter to the committee chairs that an immediate investigation was necessary “to fully understand the implications and consequences of pharmaceutical companies that do not fulfill their legal and ethical requirements to restrict the sale of opioids in circumstances that raise suspicion regarding inappropriate prescribing practices.”

The congressmen added, “There appears to be a pervasive disregard for patient safety and public health by some within the pharmaceutical industry.”

The Times’ report last month concerned the workings of the internal security department of Purdue Pharma, a private Connecticut company that has reaped more than $31 billion from OxyContin, the nation's top-selling opioid painkiller. The newspaper found that, for a decade, company lawyers, investigators and other employees have used prescribing data, field reports, sales records and their own surveillance operations to identify doctors and pharmacies they suspected of catering to addicts and drug dealers. In many cases, the company did not share its information with the Drug Enforcement Administration or police or ensure its distributors cut off the supply of pills. 

In one case highlighted by The Times, a criminal ring monitored by Purdue used a phony MacArthur Park clinic, elderly physicians and corrupt pharmacies to pump more than 1 million OxyContin tablets into the hands of gang members and other criminals. Purdue did not go to law enforcement until years later, when the ring was out of business and its leaders under indictment.

A spokesman for Purdue declined to comment. The company has said it complied with the law. 

Since 1999, nearly 200,000 people in the U.S. have died of overdoses involving prescription painkillers. Stopping the crisis has attracted bipartisan support in Congress, including the recent passage of a law that would improve treatment programs and curb overdoses. 

DeSaulnier, who is in his first term, has worked to address California’s prescription drug problem for several years. While serving in the state Senate in 2013, he wrote a law that improved the prescription monitoring program to allow authorities to better flag doctor-shopping patients and overprescribing physicians. 

He said he was concerned that Purdue seemed to have escaped any repercussions for the way it handled the information it collected on suspect doctors and pharmacies. 

“How do you get people to do the right thing when there are no consequences?” he said in an interview.

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