AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Report: Federal pain pill panel rife with links to big pharma

As prescription drug abuse reaches epidemic levels, an influential federal advisory group is bashing efforts to cut back on scripts for addictive painkillers.

Guess who its members include? People with financial ties to companies that make pain pills, according to a recent story by the Associated Press. And federal authorities won’t release documents about those ties.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working on guidelines that would recommend curbing painkiller prescriptions for chronic pain. But members of the Interagency Pain Research Coordinating Committee, which was created by the U.S. Department of Health and Human services to improve pain treatment, has called their suggestions "ridiculous" and ''horrible,” according to the AP. Nearly one third of committee members have ties to pharmaceuticals such as OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma.

Critics worry that this is a case of the fox guarding the hen house.

Panelists submitted financial disclosure forms, but the National Institutes of Health, where the panel convenes, said it cannot release them, the AP reported.

Over-prescription plays a major role in abuse and overdose deaths, and there has been a major effort to revisit current prescription practices. Experts have told the AJC that prescribing opiates such as OxyContin is widely accepted to treat pain from an acute injury, dental surgery, or as part of cancer or end of life care. But it is more controversial for chronic pain.

In Jonesboro, law enforcement dubbed psychiatrist Narendra Nagareddy “Dr. Death” after three dozen of his patients died while he was prescribing them controlled substances. He was arrested Jan. 14 and is out on $100,000 bond. For now, Nagareddy has managed to keep his license. But a judge has barred him from using it as a condition of his release.

It will likely take more than new recommendations to stop such deaths. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found that there were warning signs that something was wrong at that practice for years.

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