The Rust Belt Remains a Hotbed for Pharma's Campaign Contributions

In 2016, Robert E. Latta (R - OH) accepted more than $22,000 from Cardinal Health, making the corporation his single largest contributor that year.


During that election cycle, his home state, Ohio, had the third-highest rate of death by opioid overdose in the country. Cardinal is now being sued by the state for their role in the opioid epidemic.

In 2015, 2.59 million Americans were addicted to opioids. By the end of the year, 20,101 of them would be dead. Many painkiller manufacturers, developers and distributors would find themselves embroiled in lawsuits across the country alleging that they knowingly misrepresented the risk of addiction associated with their products. 

 

Meanwhile, Congressmen and Congresswomen representing the states and municipalities that brought the cases were often taking tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from these companies. 

An extensive investigation by the Washington Post in October revealed that opioid manufacturers and wholesalers have lobbied Congress to ensure that their products continue to get pushed to market. It was also responsible for scuttling the nomination of Rep. Tom Marino (R - PA) as Trump's drug czar.

 

While the investigation focused mainly on big pharma's maneuverings within the bureaucracy, it remains difficult to draw the line from members of Congress to their respective donors, or to discern patterns in campaign contributions. Data may provide an answer.

Data from the Center for Responsive Politics and fatality statistics from the Center for Disease Control suggest that pharmaceutical distributors and wholesalers give some of their largest payouts to candidates running in regions of the nation with some of the highest mortality rates from opioids. This is especially controversial given that these companies are often being sued in the very states these candidates represent.

This is an interactive map showing the statewide rates of death by opioid overdose per 100,000 alongside net contributions from major pharmaceutical companies to candidates for the House of Representatives during the 2015-2016 election cycle (the latest complete datasets as of February 2018).​ Deeper green corresponds to more donations, and deeper red to higher rates of fatal overdose.

Click or tap on a county to see how much was spent on elections by the companies responsible for the proliferation of addictive painkillers.

All totals are based on direct contributions, meaning that the donations were public record and the candidates receiving them could have returned the funds.

Opioid manufacturers were far from the only organizations contributing to these campaigns; they represent only one group in a diverse coalition of powerful interests. Furthermore, Congressional campaign funds often stretch into the millions, making a few tens of thousands of dollars a relatively small slice of a candidate's budget. But to that end, it begs the question why a candidate would keep those funds in the first place. For reference, Sen. Marco Rubio (R - FL) was savaged by a live audience on national television for refusing to part with $9,900 in direct contributions from the National Rifle Association. As a senator, his campaign budget will dwarf that of most House candidates.

Conflict of Interests

For many candidates, pharmaceutical companies ranked amongst their largest donors.

Rep. Latta is not unique in accepting large sums from pharmaceutical companies. Reps. Dan Donovan (R - NY), Ryan Costello (R - PA), Patrick Meehan (R - PA) and Rodney Davis (R - IL) are members of the Republican Main Street Partnership's Working Group on Substance Abuse. In November of last year, they co-authored an op-ed for Fox News alongside their fellow Working Group members lamenting that "our home districts have seen hundreds of lives lost to this epidemic." In spite of these tragic losses, each has received thousands of dollars from the named organizations, as listed below:

 

  • Dan Donovan ($5,400) - Purdue Pharma

  • Rodney Davis ($17,500) - Abbott Laboratories

  • Ryan Costello ($44,000) - McKesson, AmerisourceBergen, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Endo Health Solutions, Johnson & Johnson

  • Patrick Meehan ($40,500) - McKesson, AmerisourceBergen, Endo Health Solutions, Johnson & Johnson

Every one of these companies is being sued in the states that their respective benefactors represent, and were among the congressmen's top 100 donors.

 

Will 2018 be the same?

Even after the declaration of national emergency by President Trump, little has been done to combat the crisis. As addiction spreads and more succumb, elected officials continue to accept donations in anticipation of the rapidly-approaching 2018 midterms.

In 2016, Philadelphia reported that at least 80% of its 900 drug overdoses involved opioids. From the city's population of 1.57 million, back-of-the-envelope calculations give a fatal opioid overdose rate of 45.9 per 100,000 - worse than any one state in the country.

Rep. Meehan's district encompasses suburbs in the Greater Philadelphia Area. Before announcing his retirement from Congress in connection with a sexual harassment scandal, he had received $34,000 between McKesson, AmerisourceBergen,  Endo Health Solutions and Abbott Laboratories in anticipation of a 2018 run. AmerisourceBergen is his second-largest donor overall. 

Reps. Brendan Boyle (D - PA) and Ryan Costello also represent segments of Philadelphia's constituency. To date, they have accepted at least $12,500 and $18,000 from pharmaceutical companies, respectively.

With more than eight full months until the 2018 midterms, both the volume of campaign contributions  and the number of overdoses in cities across the Rust Belt, like Philadelphia, will continue to rise.

One can hope that things will change given a resurgence in political participation across the nation. As of January, dissatisfaction with government and leadership was the most important issue to one in four Americans, according to polling by Gallup. However, it is possible that this is owed more to frustration with a deeply unpopular president and political brinkmanship over hot-button issues such as immigration and gun control. 

Campaign finance reform remains an esoteric and unattractive issue. But when elected officials accept campaign funds from organizations being sued by their own states for threatening their constituents' health, the question remains if, not when, things will change.

. . .

Use the map to find out how much money pharmaceutical companies pumped into your Congressional district's elections last cycle, and keep an eye out as the 2018 midterms rapidly approach.

Contribution values are based on bulk data dumps from the Center for Responsive Politics, without which this piece would not have been possible. Statewide overdose estimates were provided by the Center for Disease Control. You can access the code behind this piece on Github, and the final dataset as a Google Fusion Table.

  • Kentucky: the Attorney General has named Cardinal Health and McKesson in separate lawsuits; the state settled with Purdue Pharma in 2015 for $24 million.
     

  • Ohio: the Attorney General has named McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen in a lawsuit. In May, he brought a similar suit against Purdue Pharma, Endo, Johnson & Johnson and Teva.

  • Pennsylvania: the City of Philadelphia announced a lawsuit against Endo, Johnson & Johnson (alongside its subsidiary, Janssen Pharmaceuticals), Teva and others for fueling the crisis locally. 

States are suing some of the largest opioid companies in the country

Many of the best-funded races were in the most acutely-affected states, especially those in the Rust Belt. This includes major metropolitan areas within the Belt that have struggled to rein in the opioid epidemic, including Philadelphia, Columbus, Oh., and Scranton, Pa.

In 2017, Columbus was counting up to one death per day owing to the crisis. The previous year, opioid companies had poured more than $100,000 into House campaigns near the city.

Philadelphia's suburbs were similarly inundated with campaign contributions. Heroin and painkillers continued to ravage the city the following year, at one point leading to 70 overdoses in 30 days.

by Spencer Norris

The companies counted in the contributions totals are as follows:

  • McKesson Corporation

  • Cardinal Health Solutions

  • AmerisourceBergen

  • Teva Pharmaceutical Industries

  • Endo Health Solutions

  • Johnson & Johnson

  • Abbott Laboratories

  • Purdue Pharma

Each of these organizations is being sued by at least one state or municipality in the Rust Belt for its role in the opioid crisis.

On average, 115 Americans die every day from opioids. While their states and municipalities sue opioid distributors and manufacturers, their representatives in the House continue to accept the companies' campaign contributions.

© 2019 by Spencer Norris