One year ago today, my sister, Amy Wallace, died of an overdose of prescription painkillers. She had prescriptions for some drugs, but supplemented her allowance by using online pharmacies. Those wanting to know more about Amy can scroll through video of her memorial service here.
What I want to discuss is the Obama administration's refusal to deal seriously with the epidemic of deaths from prescription drug overdoses. I run a web site, AllGov.com, which monitors the activities of more than 330 departments and agencies of the U.S. Government. Not realizing that someday this problem would hit so close to home, my staff and I made it a point of writing about the prescription drug overdose epidemic at least once a year.
Here's a sampling of our headlines:
Florida: More Deaths from Oxycodone than Cocaine
Prescription Drugs Cause More Deaths than Illegal Drugs
Drug Addiction in Oklahoma Costs More than Entire State Budget
Another State Reports Uncontrolled Rise in Prescription Drug Abuse
Drug Overdose Deaths Up for 11th Year in Row
You get the picture. In each year since 2007, prescription opioid painkillers caused more overdose deaths than heroin and cocaine combined. All over the United States, hospitals, police departments and sheriff departments have been trying to deal with the unnecessary rise in lethal overdoses of prescription painkillers. The Obama administration has shown little interest in acting.
It's not hard to figure out why. The drugs that my sister and others overdosed on are produced by large pharmaceutical firms that spend millions of dollars on lobbying. To them, sales of their products mean nothing more than increased revenue. If their products are filtered to the public through shady online pharmacies and end up being the cause of death of thousands of Americans, that's simply not relevant. Both major political parties want campaign donations from the pharmaceutical industry, so the consequences of the sale of prescription painkillers are not relevant to them either.
After four years of being President Barack Obama's "drug czar," Gil Kerlikowske suddenly discovered the prescription drug death crisis. By this time, prescription drug overdoses had become the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., surpassing gunshot wounds and automobile accidents. "We weren't paying attention to it," he told a House of Representatives subcommittee. Tell that to ER workers and law enforcement agents around the country...not to mention Americans who lost loved ones.
Every now and then, Obama administration officials or members of Congress will perk up and say something or advocate a minor fix, but it's pretty much hot air. The most cynical action by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) occurred two months after my sister died. The FDA reclassified certain painkillers to make them better regulated and announced that for certain drug combinations, patients would be limited to a 90-day supply and would have to return to a doctor for a refill prescription. Pretty tough stuff, huh?
But the very next day, the FDA, overruling its own expert panel, approved the production and distribution of a new painkiller, Zohydro ER, the first hydrocodone-only opioid, that's considered at least five times stronger than heroin. Thanks FDA.
I understand that my sister made her own decisions about her life and that she was ultimately responsible for her own death. I also know that there are individuals in the Obama administration who are doing what they can to crack down on online pharmacies. For example, just three weeks ago, a federal grand jury indicted FedEx for knowingly shipping illegal drugs from online pharmacies to consumers despite having been warned by the federal government at least six times that it was acting as a drug courier. FedEx faces fines of up to $820 million, but unlike small-time drug couriers, no one at the company faces jail time over the charges.
Not until the executives of pharmaceutical companies and the executives of enabling companies, like FedEx, face criminal charges as individuals, is there any hope for seriously reducing the number of victims of prescription drug overdoses...and the number of Americans who wake up one morning to learn, as I did one year ago today, that they have lost a loved one.