Media outlets seized on a report released Feb. 12 by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) about financial support given by opioid manufacturers to patient advocacy groups. The report suggests that manufacturers influenced advocacy groups to campaign for relaxing opioid prescribing policies that some public health experts contend have contributed to the nationwide opioid epidemic. The report received widespread coverage in publications including the Associated Press, Reuters and USA Today.

Pharma companies have long faced accusations of manipulating patient advocates into siding with them on important public policy debates. The opioid epidemic has further fueled this scrutiny – just last week, The New York Times published a story about a proposal in Minnesota to tax opioid sales and the involvement of an advocacy group, the Addiction Policy Forum, that received funding from PhRMA.

The media’s focus on drug costs also has increased attention on industry-advocacy relationships. Kaiser Health News, The New England Journal of Medicine, STAT and The Wall Street Journal are among the publications that in the past year have critically examined potential conflicts of interest among advocacy groups that receive financial support from pharmaceutical and medical device companies.

Here’s what we can expect moving forward:

  • It’s going to get worse. Scrutiny of partnerships between pharma companies and advocacy groups figures to intensify as concerns about opioid prescribing policies grow and the rising cost of prescription drugs remains a major issue.
  • Transparency is key. In the face of questions about advocacy partnerships, pharmaceutical companies need to push the limits of their disclosure policies to effectively transition away from a defensive stance. Advocates should have written policies outlining how industry contributions are used and how their groups work — and don’t work — with the private sector.
  • Organizations must communicate beyond the media. It is essential for industry and advocacy groups alike to have plans and protocols in place for communications to employees, volunteers, stakeholder groups and others when a critical article is published. Proof points addressing the benefits of these partnerships to patients are a must.
  • Allies are critical. Friends are never more important than in times of need. Groups should ensure allied organizations and outside influencers know their policies for industry-advocacy partnerships and can speak to the benefits of such relationships — before a crisis hits.

Steve Weiss is a senior vice president, Health.

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