Editorial: Claire McCaskill right to plunge ahead with opioid probe

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri is asking hard questions of the drug manufacturing industry.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri is asking hard questions of the drug manufacturing industry. File photo by The Star

Claire McCaskill is no shrinking violet. So the Missouri senator’s much-publicized incursion this week into the opioid epidemic that is rocking this country should surprise no one.

That includes Sen. Ron Johnson, the Republican chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on which McCaskill sits. Johnson said he was disappointed in the Democrat’s go-it-alone decision to demand marketing information, sales records and studies from opioid manufacturers.

McCaskill wants to know whether the drugmakers themselves have contributed to the ongoing overuse of the powerful painkillers blamed for nearly 200,000 deaths in the last 15 years.

“We have an obligation to everyone devastated by this epidemic to find answers,” McCaskill said in a statement about the letter she sent to the drugmakers. “All of this didn’t happen overnight. It happened one prescription and marketing program at a time.”

Johnson didn’t sign that letter, and he’s not known for investigating private companies. He said through an aide that Republicans weren’t given time to join the investigation. Other Republicans said McCaskill upset tradition by plunging ahead by herself instead of taking advantage of the “widespread interest” on the committee to join her.

Committee spokeswoman Brittni Palke told The Associated Press that McCaskill wanted “headlines instead of results.”

We don’t care who gets the credit. We’re just happy that someone — anyone — is pushing ahead to get to the root causes of such a sinister epidemic. Opioid addiction has grown dramatically since the drugs were first introduced two decades ago. Manufacturers of the products are said to have made billions from sales.

McCaskill’s suspicion — and she has said this publicly — is that the companies are focused more on encouraging addiction than they are on preventing abuse.

A McCaskill aide said the former prosecutor knows exactly where she wants to go with the investigation. The senator told Johnson what her intentions were. “She felt it was important to put down a marker in this space,” and she hopes Johnson and other committee members will participate, the spokesman said. McCaskill clearly didn’t want anything to get in the way of an urgent priority.

Lots of states have tried lots of things to get a handle on this ongoing problem. State lawmakers across the country are said to have considered nearly 1,000 measures in recent years to fight opioids.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a doctor, calls opioids probably the nation’s biggest public health crisis.

For that reason alone, we hope McCaskill runs hard at this issue — alone or with the committee beside her. Drug manufacturers have questions to answer.