Our country’s opioid epidemic which claims the lives of 91 Americans every day is hurting far too many families in Michigan and across the country.
Opioid drugs, including prescription painkillers and heroin, killed more than 33,000 people in this country in 2015, the most on record. The epidemic is straining both public services and state budgets. With a problem this big, there is no one solution that will help everyone. But elected officials and groups like the Teamsters are getting involved to help stop this scourge.
In Michigan, for example, Attorney General Bill Schuette recently proposed using some $860,000 in settlement money the state is set to receive from a national lawsuit settlement with Johnson & Johnson to fund a public health campaign on opioid addiction.
For our part, the Teamsters Union is leading a shareholder effort to demand accountability from our country’s largest wholesale drug distributors for their role in fueling the opioid epidemic. In addition to representing workers at each of the “Big Three” distributors — McKesson, AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health, which account for 85 percent of all prescription drug distribution in the U.S. — the union and its affiliated pension and benefit funds are long-term shareholders.
The numbers are staggering. According to news reports, the “Big Three” shipped 423 million doses of hydrocodone and oxycodone into West Virginia, a state of only 1.8 million people, over a six-year period. At the same time, more than 1,700 people in West Virginia fatally overdosed as the three companies reported a combined $17 billion in profits and their CEOs received more than $500 million in combined compensation. Part of the tragedy is that each company had been put on notice by the DEA over the past decade for failing to report suspicious orders as required by law. Together, McKesson and Cardinal Health paid more than $200 million to settle charges with the DEA over that period.
The companies’ practices of putting profits ahead of people has created both financial and reputational risk — sparking an investigation by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, multiple lawsuits and an onslaught of negative press.
As long-term shareholders of McKesson, AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health, the Teamsters have called for independent board committees to investigate each company’s opioid sales practices and compliance programs, and report the findings to shareholders. Additionally, the union has urged independent board leadership and executive pay reform that incentivizes compliance and empowers boards to claw back compensation when corporate mismanagement creates significant financial or reputational harm.
It goes without saying that there is much at stake right now when it comes to the nation’s health care system. Congress is considering changes to the health care law, and some have issued support for a Senate bill they claim is a kinder alternative to a House bill passed in May. But that is certainly not the case when it comes to fighting opioid addiction, where almost 3 million people whose treatment is paid by Medicaid would be left to fend for themselves.
This, of course, doesn’t even address numerous other shortcomings of the legislation, such as the outrageous 40 percent excise tax it slaps on high-quality health care plans, as well as a massive tax cut it doles out to corporations and the rich at the expense of the poor.
It’s time to come together and protect the people. Getting serious about opioid abuse and stopping the Senate’s bad health care bill is how we do it.
James Hoffa is president of the Teamsters.
Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.