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Opinion | Marsha Blackburn Cares More about Drug Sellers than Tennesseans Torn by Opioid Crisis

Opioid abuse is costing each and every Tennessean approximately $4,793 a year, according to a study by the American Enterprise Institute. That includes the cost of overdose-related fatalities and the “nonfatal costs,” such as the costs of health care and substance abuse treatment, the costs to the criminal justice system, and the costs of lost productivity.

The opioid epidemic is, without a doubt, one of the most severe health crises our nation has faced. While the causes for this epidemic are multi-faceted and complex, we have to be honest about the unfortunate reality that Congress has taken action that has, at the very least, allowed the epidemic to continue and, in some cases, actually helped make it worse.

Late last year, an exhaustive investigative report by "60 Minutes" and the Washington Post revealed the extent to which Tennessee’s own Rep. Marsha Blackburn has helped distributors continue to flood our streets with opioids. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that Blackburn has taken $711,385 in campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry since 2002. The inference here is obvious.

The Tennessee Department of Health tells us that 6,039 Tennesseans died of opioid abuse between 2010-15. This trend didn’t slow in 2016, when 1,631 Tennesseans died. As of 2015, there were more prescriptions for opioids in Tennessee than there were people. In 2012, more Tennesseans died of opioid overdoses than died of vehicle accidents, homicide or suicide.

U.S. Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn addresses the Williamson County Republican Party annual Reagan Day Dinner Friday, Feb. 23, 2018 in Franklin, Tenn. (Photo: George Walker IV / The Tennessean)

Yet as this epidemic continued to worsen, Rep. Blackburn sponsored legislation that stripped the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency of its ability to keep opioids off our streets. She claimed her bill would ensure that the many unfortunate Americans who suffer from chronic pain could continue to get the medicine they need. In reality, it held the floodgates open for the unscrupulous to continue to peddle drugs.

The reporting of "60 Minutes" and the Washington Post revealed that drug distributors and manufacturers, pharmacies, regulators and lawmakers all take part in an illicit system that pours massive amounts of opioids into our streets. In one example, McKesson – one of the Big Three opioid distributors in the United States – knowingly sold pills to a single pharmacist in Colorado who was selling up to 2,000 pills a day in a town of 38,000 people. Even so, Blackburn sided with McKesson and the other opioid distributors against what she described as the overzealous enforcement efforts of the DEA.


Overdose Awareness Day event draws hundreds


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Attendees light candles to remember those who have lost their lives to addiction, at Tennessee Overdose Prevention's second Overdose Awareness Day event at Women's Basketball Hall of Fame Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017. CAITIE MCMEKIN/NEWS SENTINEL

Now we’re in an election year, and Blackburn is asking us to promote her to the U.S. Senate, but we have to ask ourselves if that would be in our best interests. At this point, Blackburn has taken $15,000 in campaign contributions from McKesson and $17,500 from Cardinal Health, another of the Big Three opioid distributors. We can legitimately ask exactly whom she really wants to represent in the Senate.

Based on her previous legislative action, the answer is clearly that Blackburn is more concerned about the interests of the drug distributors than she is in the interests of the far too many Tennessee families that are struggling with the horrible ramifications of opioid abuse.

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Shortly after the press revealed her role in the opioid crisis, Blackburn told the USA TODAY Network, “If there are unintended consequences, we will fix it.” The blunt reality is that she has done nothing in the five months since.

It’s far past time that we took substantive action to curb opioid abuse in Tennessee. If we truly want to make a change for the future, we can start by asking where Blackburn’s loyalties lie. Can we trust her to take our side over the opioid distributors?

Andrew N. Pfeffer is an attending emergency medicine physician in Middle Tennessee.

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