Opioid abuse a growing problem in Alaska

  • By Rachel D'oro
  • Saturday, September 17, 2016 9:26pm
  • News

ANCHORAGE — Abuse of opioids has only recently entered the public consciousness as a crisis in Alaska even though it’s been a growing problem for the past decade.

“It’s been much more visible over the past couple of years,” said Jay Butler, the state’s chief medical officer. “Of course, some of that is driven by the national trends. That helps people feel more comfortable about talking about these issues.”

A joint investigation by The Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity found that drugmakers that produce opioid painkillers and allied advocacy groups spent more than $880 million on campaign contributions and lobbying over the past decade as they worked to influence state and federal policies. The groups have an array of political interests that include opioid advocacy, and their spending was eight times that of the gun lobby during the same period. By comparison, groups advocating for limits on opioid prescribing spent about $4 million. Alaska is far behind scores of Lower 48 states, at least in terms of lobbying and campaign contributions from drug makers and industry supporters.

The AP investigation comes as the number of overdose deaths from prescription pain killers has soared, claiming the lives of 165,000 people in the U.S. since 2000. Reporters analyzed campaign finance and lobbying data from 2006 through 2015, reviewed hundreds of documents and conducted more than 150 interviews. The AP and Center for Public Integrity found that drugmakers and allied groups employed an annual average of 1,350 lobbyists in state capitals around the country and contributed to a total of 7,100 candidates for state-level office. Drug companies say they are committed to solving the problems linked to their painkillers. Purdue Pharma, one of the largest opioid producers by sales, said it does not oppose policies “that improve the way opioids are prescribed” even if they result in lower sales.

One caveat: Organizations included in the investigation are involved in a number of unrelated issues, and it’s impossible to say how much of their spending has been related to influencing opioid laws.

Here’s a look at Alaska’s place in the analysis:

A decade ago, 76 people died in drug overdoses in Alaska. In 2014, the latest year for which the data is available, there were 124 deaths — a 63 percent increase. That gave Alaska a drug death rate of 16.8 per 100,000 — compared with the national rate of 14.8 that year. While Alaska has a death rate higher than the national average, it’s still far below such high-death states that year as West Virginia, with a 33.9 rate, and New Mexico, with a 26.2 rate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has indicated that prescription opioids and heroin account for most drug deaths. Butler said Alaska also has seen an influx of more heroin with a higher level of purity. And more recently, the powerful painkiller fentanyl was found in heroin seized from the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Quinhagak, where four people overdosed on heroin in August, including one woman who died.

While deaths are going up, the number of opioid prescriptions has fallen in Alaska — a similar downward trend across much of the nation. Per capita, Alaska’s opioid prescription rate is among the lowest in the nation. In 2013 more than 468,000 prescriptions were issued in the state, compared with about 420,600 in 2015. That’s equivalent to slightly more than one prescription per every two residents.

Members of the Pain Care Forum — a loose coalition of drug manufacturers and nonprofit groups supported by industry money — contributed a total of $40,000 to senior U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, a longtime member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, between 2008 and 2012, and 2015. Murkowski spokeswoman Karina Petersen said the senator supports efforts to not only treat but prevent opioid addiction, including co-sponsoring legislation passed by Congress this year that, among other things, creates a national monitoring program aimed at reducing prescription drug abuse. “On the official side, we don’t follow what contributions are made to Senator Murkowski’s campaign, nor do we take them into account when taking official action,” Petersen wrote in an email. Forum member contributions to former Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, who was a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, totaled more than $52,000 between 2008 and 2009, and between 2012 and 2014, when he lost his re-election bid to Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan. Begich did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the contributions. Sullivan has received a total of $6,200 from forum members. Contributions to Alaska’s sole representative in the U.S. House, Rep. Don Young, totaled $3,000 between 2006 and 2009.

Pain Care Forum members were far tighter with contributions to just a few state candidates, giving just $1,070 between 2006 and 2013. That included $670 to the campaign of now Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, and another $100 in Walker’s 2010 bid for the office. In 2006, just $300 went to the campaign of former Gov. Sarah Palin and her lieutenant governor, Sean Parnell.

Alaska has averaged six state lobbyists paid by forum members each year for the past decade. Between 2012 and 2015, lobbying expenditures totaled nearly $524,000, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

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