Sens. Grassley, Wyden call for greater transparency of opioid makers’ ties to tax-exempt groups

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U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and Ron Wyden (D-OR), the finance committee’s ranking member, presented a report to the committee Wednesday illuminating the connections between opioid manufacturers and tax-exempt entities that drove up sales while downplaying the risk of opioid addiction.

The bipartisan investigation into the connections identified payments from manufacturers of opioids and opioid-related products to groups focused on pain issues. Started in 2019, the investigation looked at financial data, including grant contracts, audits, and IRS Form 990s, along with information about their advocacy activities and the advocacy activities of their officers and board members.

Through hundreds of pages of documentation, the report shows these agencies received more than $65 million in payments from opioid manufacturers; the business motivations of the donations companies made to the tax-exempt groups, and the relationships that were formed because of them; and the relationship with three case studies involving the American Chronic Pain Association, Americans for Patient Access and the International Association for the Study of Pain, each of which seems to echo the business interests of the opioid-manufacturers interests.

With the release of the report, Grassley and Wyden recommended that, in order to improve transparency, the federal government expand the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Open Payments database to require pharmaceutical manufactures and device manufacturers to disclose payments made to tax-exempt organizations and to require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop guidelines and procedures to increase transparency.

“Tax-exempt advocacy organizations like the ones we looked at are created with good intentions. They can be forces for good, advocating, and highlighting issues that might not otherwise receive the warranted attention. But we’ve found that the possibility of donor influence could and has undermined the efforts to develop and advocate good policy. When it comes to opioids, we need to make sure there is transparency and accountability to prevent what, in this case, led to serious public misunderstanding of the risks of these highly addictive drugs,” Grassley said.

The report builds on a previous investigation in 2012 by Grassley and Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), which found that groups like American Pain Foundation and the American Pain Society that had made claims that “most pain sufferers are under-medicated” and “many physicians are reluctant to prescribe opioids because they mistakenly think their patients will become addicted to the drug…” received millions of dollars of contributions from opioid manufacturers.

“Our bipartisan investigation shows how pharmaceutical companies use tax-exempt groups to help seed the market for their products by shaping the views of patients, doctors, and policymakers. The potential dangers presented by opioids makes this Trojan horse-style of marketing particularly troubling, but make no mistake that such practices are widespread across the pharmaceutical industry, and consumers are often left in the dark. I look forward to working with Senator Grassley and our Finance Committee colleagues to pass into law important reforms that provide consumers with more visibility of the financial relationships between drug companies and tax-exempt organizations,” Wyden said.

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