Did Big Pharma Hire Dozens Of DEA Officials To Reduce Scrutiny Of Opioid Painkillers?

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It’s not uncommon for folks at federal agencies to cash in on their public sector connections by taking a high-paying job with a company they used to regulate. But when it comes to the pharmaceuticals industry’s hiring of dozens of Drug Enforcement Administration officials, the question is whether these former DEA staffers were being hired because of what they could contribute, or because it was better for the industry to get them out of law enforcement.

According to the Washington Post, more than 40 DEA officials have been hired away by the pharmaceuticals industry (and their associated law firms) since 2005. Three-quarters of these hires came from the DEA’s Diversion Control Division — the section of the agency tasked with stemming the flow of prescription drugs onto the black market.

Among those who’ve left Diversion Control to do work on behalf of the pharmaceuticals industry are a former division deputy director, a deputy chief of operations, a chief of investigations, to policy chiefs and two associate chief counsels who had been tasked with enforcement actions against pharmaceutical companies.

A decade ago, as opioid painkiller addiction and overdoses began to become a nationwide epidemic, and certain drug companies turned a blind eye to pill mills that prescribed the drugs to anyone who could pay, the DEA stepped up its efforts to address the issue.

A crackdown on clinics and physicians who overprescribe opioids — and the pharmacies that looked the other way as they filled these prescriptions — means fewer sales.

Some industry watchers believe that the pharmaceuticals companies hired away the DEA Diversion Control staffers as a way to slow down or curb agency actions.

“The number of employees recruited from that division points to a deliberate strategy by the pharmaceutical industry to hire people who are the biggest headaches for them,” John Carnevale, former director of planning for the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, tells the Post. “These people understand how DEA operates, the culture around diversion and DEA’s goals, and they can advise their clients how to stay within the guidelines.”

Joseph Rannazzisi, former head of Diversion Control, tells the Post “It’s obvious that they targeted the office… If you want to understand how we were doing our investigations, the best way to do it is to take our people who are doing the investigations and put them in place in your company. It’s not difficult to understand why you would take these guys. They know the law.”

There are laws in place intended to severely restrict conflicts of interest between former federal employees and their new private employers. The so-called “Revolving Door” rules include a permanent prohibition against former federal workers on being involved in anything “in which the person participated personally and substantially” while they worked for the government. For matters that the person didn’t handle directly but were still pending when they left their government job, there is a two-year ban. Violations of these rules can result in substantial financial penalties.

However, the DEA and the pharma industry contend that all is above-board and these DEA folks were hired because of their expertise.

“Many who serve in government possess expert knowledge in a wide variety of fields. It is not uncommon for former government officials to use or rely on such expertise when they transfer to the private sector following their public sector service,” a DEA rep tells the Post. “Employees who leave DEA and other government agencies for private sector work are expected to abide by the applicable laws and ethics rules that govern their private sector activities.”

While it could just be a coincidence, the Post notes that after the drug companies went on the DEA hiring spree, those who remained at the agency began bringing fewer cases against the industry, as the DEA raised its bar for the standard of proof required to bring a case. Between 2011 and 2014, the number of DEA’s civil cases filed against distributors, manufacturers, pharmacies, and physicians dropped 131 per year to only 40.

Aside from any expertise or insight the former DEA folks might have brought to their new employers, Craig Holman of Public Citizen questions what impact these DEA defections might have had on those who remained behind.

“That high rate of turnover makes you really wonder whether those officials were acting in the interests of the DEA rather than the companies they were regulating,” he tells the Post. “Just by seeing your colleagues going that way, that tells you that you can shape your future employment prospects if you behave accordingly.”

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