When speaking of the “shame of our campaigns,” no episode in the last decade should disgust more than the federal response to the Opioid Epidemic. As hundreds of thousands of Americans died from opioid-related causes, the federal government’s main response was to loosen enforcement power over the opioid industry and its many deceptive practices.
And the epidemic hasn’t ended. In the four-county Sacramento region in 2019 – the latest year data is available – health officials report 40,000 individuals as addicted to opioid-related substances. The Sacramento County Opioid Coalition also reports that the local opioid death rate last year hit its second-highest level since 2011, continuing its upward trend of the last five years.
But over that same decade, the largest opioid makers and distributors were busy pumping nearly $60 million in donations into the political system. This included $207,550 to holders of Sacramento County’s principal seats in Congress. They are Democratic incumbents Doris Matsui and Ami Bera,* plus the final 2011-2012 term of Republican Dan Lungren, who preceded Bera.
But the undisputed local leader of opioid PAC contributions was Matsui, whose CA-6 district covers most of the City of Sacramento and some of Yolo County. Over the last five election cycles going back to 2011-12, she netted a combined $125,200 for her campaign account and leadership PAC.
This included $36,500 raised in the 2019-20 election cycle alone, which ranked third among California’s 53-member House delegation. Only House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi ranked higher. Ranking 7th overall was Bera (CA-7), who for additional irony is a doctor.
This data covers donations from the five largest opioid makers and six largest distributors in the U.S. The manufacturers are Mallinckrodt, Endo/Par Pharma, Teva Pharmaceutical, Johnson & Johnson and Allergan/Actavis; and the distributors are AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, McKesson, CVS, Walgreens and Walmart.
These 11 donors are also all defendants in a lawsuit file in May 2018 by the counties of Sacramento, Placer, El Dorado and nine other northern California counties. Even after the filing of that lawsuit, both Matsui and Bera continued to accept tens of thousands of dollars from the companies’ PACs.
The suit seeks to recoup tens of millions of dollars in public health costs. It claims the industry’s aggressive marketing, unsafe dosage recommendations, and deceptive record keeping led to a skyrocketing of addiction and public healthcare costs. The suit has been consolidated with lawsuits by thousands of other municipalities and states, and remains active in the U.S. District Court of Northern Ohio.
Although neither Matsui nor Bera faced any major opposition in their primary or general election campaigns this past election cycle, neither saw reason to lighten up on their money from opioid companies. In the 2019-20 election cycle, Matsui’s $36,500 haul was a career high, and Bera fell just $500 short of tying his previous opioids highwater mark of $22,500 raised in 2015-16.
Neither Matsui nor Bera’s offices would return calls or emails to respond to questions for this article.
But FEC records make clear that Matsui’s largest opioid-industry contributor by far has been AmerisourceBergen. The Pennsylvania-based wholesale drug distributor has contributed $50,000 to Matsui this decade.
AmerisourceBergen operates three distribution centers in California, including one in Natomas in Matsui’s district. All three were cited by California’s Board of Pharmacy last year for furnishing excessive amounts of drugs without ensuring they were sold for “legitimate medical purposes.” In January of this year, the company and the Board of Pharmacy finalized a $150,000 settlement.
Matsui’s second largest opioid-industry donor was McKesson Corporation, which operates a distribution center in West Sacramento, also in Matsui’s district. In January 2017, McKesson agreed to pay a record $150 million civil penalty for allegedly failing to properly report suspicious sales of controlled substances. McKesson also agreed to suspend sales of controlled substances from distribution centers in Colorado, Ohio, Michigan and Florida for multiple years.
Most politicians say campaign donations don’t influence them, but it’s hard to call the $12 million donated by the opioid industry in just 2015-2016 as money poorly spent. That’s because in April 2016 Congress enacted a kneecapping of DEA enforcement power over Big Pharma despite the epidemic having taken nearly a half million lives from 1998 to 2016. This bill passed by unanimous voice vote making it the rare bipartisan bill left untouched by gridlock.
Once the bill’s relaxing of DEA enforcement powers was exposed by 60 Minutes and The Washington Post, most lawmakers interviewed admitted having never read the bill. Some stated the bill certainly should be fixed, but in the four years since, Congress has yet to reinstitute the DEA powers.
* SactoPolitico.com founder and editor Jeff Burdick ran in the March 3rd Congressional primary as a first-time candidate against Bera, Patterson and two other candidates. Burdick is a trained journalist, and six months after the primary election, he returned to this vocation by starting The Sacto Politico.
Other articles in the Shame of Our Campaign series: