Just one year after executives at Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, pled guilty in federal court and paid $635 million in fines for misleading doctors about the addictive properties of its bestselling painkiller, a tiny medical clinic opened near the Los Angeles neighborhood of MacArthur Park.
A convicted felon and his associate ran the clinic, named Lake Medical. They enlisted an elderly doctor, Eleanor Santiago, and in the first four months of operation, the trio illegally distributed an estimated 73,000 80mg pills of Oxycontin worth about $6 million on the street.
In its exhaustive two-part investigative report, The Los Angeles Times gained access to internal Purdue communications and utilized government and law enforcement documents to uncover disturbing facts that add fuel to the raging fire of prescription painkiller and heroin addiction in the United States.
“For more than a decade,” writes The Times, “Purdue collected extensive evidence suggesting illegal trafficking of OxyContin and, in many cases did not share it with law enforcement or cut off the flow of pills…” to traffickers, like those running Lake Medical.
Statistics regarding rates of heroin and prescription painkiller abuse, addiction and overdose are widely reported on. While there are those that might tire of the incessant drum beating, the importance of a continued conversation cannot be overstated.
What is the Public Impact of Misused Opioid Prescriptions?
Evidence The Times has discovered suggests a willful cover-up by a pharmaceutical giant that most experts agree launched rampant opiate abuse that bears responsibility for some of the following:
- Since 1999, nearly 200,000 people have unintentionally overdosed on prescription painkillers, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
- Data compiled by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration showed that, in 2014, an average of 4.3 million people engaged in the non-medical use of prescription painkillers in a given month and an estimated 435,000 used heroin during the same period
- Government research reports that one out of every 15 individuals who misuse or abuse prescription painkillers will try heroin when painkillers become too expensive or difficult to find
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that everyday in the United States, 78 people die from opioid overdoses
Pharmaceutical Companies Have a Legal and Moral Obligation
As for the family owned Purdue Pharma, which has earned upwards of $31 billion in sales of OxyContin, the plot thickens. The Times found that the company had a list of suspicious doctors called “region zero.”
Company reps were told to avoid these clients, but by 2013, there were 1,800 physicians on the list. Purdue said it reported a paltry 8 percent of the doctors on the list to law enforcement. Dr. Santiago, of Lake Medical, was on the list, but not reported.
Pharmaceutical companies are required by federal law to report dubious behavior by healthcare professionals to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
The DEA official previously in charge of regulating these companies, Joseph Rannazzisi, told The Times that the federal agency also expects companies like Purdue Pharma to cut off the supply of pills to doctors it believes are breaking the law.
“They have an obligation,” Rannazzisi tells The Times, “a legal one but also a moral one.”
Eventually, the illegal oxy distribution ring at Lake Medical came to an end after tips put the clinic on the radar of local, state and federal law enforcement, without the help of the drug maker.
It wasn’t until two months after the arrests, in December 2011, that a lawyer for Purdue contacted the DEA. Dr. Santiago, who was already sitting in jail, finally got reported to the authorities.
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