TAMPA — A joint investigation by The Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity found that drugmakers that produce opioid painkillers and allied advocacy groups spent more than $3.8 million on campaign contributions and lobbying over the past decade in Florida as they worked to influence state and federal policies. The groups have an array of political interests that include opioid advocacy, and their spending was eight times that of the gun lobby during the same period.
The investigation comes as the number of overdose deaths from prescription painkillers has soared, claiming the lives of 165,000 people in the U.S. since 2000. Reporters analyzed campaign finance and lobbying data from 2006 through 2015, reviewed hundreds of documents and conducted more than 150 interviews.
Drug companies say they are committed to solving the problems linked to their painkillers. Purdue Pharma, one of the largest opioid producers by sales, said it does not oppose policies "that improve the way opioids are prescribed" even if they result in lower sales.
At one time, Florida was the epicenter of the deadly rise in abuse of oxycodone and similar addictive painkillers, with doctors in the Sunshine State prescribing far more of the drugs than all other states combined, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
In 2010 alone, 650 million oxycodone pills were prescribed in Florida — more than 34 pills for every resident of the state. Also that year, oxycodone caused 1,516 overdose deaths in Florida — more than four a day, more than any other drug.
According to data analyzed by The Associated Press, drugmakers that produce opioid painkillers and allied advocacy groups gave more than $500,000 to Florida candidates in 2010. The only higher year in the past decade was in 2008 when they gave almost $705,000.
In 2011, the state cracked down on "pill mills" using databases to monitor what doctors are prescribing.
Since the crackdown, Gov. Rick Scott's office says that the state's Drug Enforcement Strike Force Team has made 2,150 arrests — including 34 doctors — related to prescription drug abuse in Florida.
There has been a noticeable tapering off of contributions since 2010.
Florida's Republicans, including the state party, received more than 2.5 times the campaign contributions that Democratic candidates and the Florida Democratic Party received from companies that make opioids and other groups that participate in the Pain Care Forum.
Republicans received nearly $2.9 million from the industry from 2006 through 2015. Democrats received $997,180 during the same time period. Independents received $31,800.
To be sure, Republicans control the state's congressional delegation and also leadership in the legislature.
Gov. Rick Scott received $10,000 in contributions from forum participants.
Three Florida Democrats led the way with campaign contributions from companies that make opioids and other groups that participate in the Pain Care Forum, which includes opioid makers and nonprofit groups.
All either were, or are, in the House of Representatives.
Allen Boyd, a Democrat from north Florida, received the most, $107,862 from 2006-2010. Democratic Congressman Kendrick Meek of Miami received the next largest amount from Florida's D.C. delegation — $90,270 during the same period of time.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, of South Florida, came in third, with $89,657.
In 2010, Boyd was defeated by the Republican candidate. Boyd went to work for the Twenty First Century Group, an organization that lobbies Congress in Washington. The firm's client roster includes pharmaceutical companies, among other industries.
Lobbyists for opioid manufacturers have been pushing for states to require prescription plans to cover opioids with abuse-deterrent properties.
The drugs are difficult to crush or dissolve, though they are no less addictive. Some experts believe they don't do much to address the opioid crisis — and may even hurt. Because of patent protections, there are not yet generic versions of the formulations, so a handful of major companies control the market.
Florida lawmakers adopted the so-called abuse-deterrent legislation this year. Senate Bill 422 was filed by State Sen. Lizbeth Benaquisto — who received a total of $20,000 from opioid manufacturers during four years. Its companion in the house — HB 363 — makes abuse-deterrent opioids more readily accessible to physicians and their patients. HB 363 was sponsored by Jeanette Núñez, who received $7,650 from opioid manufacturers, according to the database.
Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law in March. Scott received a total of $10,000 from opioid manufacturers, according to the data.
The legislation, with a limited number of exceptions, mandates insurance policies that cover opioid medications cannot require prior authorization for abuse-deterrent versions of the medications. Opponents of the bills said it would make employers and others who provide health care benefits cover brand-name opioid drugs — also known as abuse-deterrent formulation opioids, or ADF — even when more affordable generics are available.
A study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that the introduction of ADF OxyContin ultimately resulted in abusers' increased use of alternative opioids, like heroin.