Monday, September 19, 2005
Morton Mintz Speaks
...you listen. (Especially if you're a member of the Fourth Estate -- which nowadays is too busy sucking up to the First and Second Estates, at the expense of the Third.) Here's a sample:
Consistently, stories that really matter to people's lives, safety, health and pocketbooks, even to the survival of our country, are ignored, neglected, trivialized, or if covered, covered very late, even when they can be as easily plucked as ripe fruit from a tree. Let me mention just one of dozens I could cite. It is the decline, and in some sectors blatant rejection, of congressional oversight of government fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement. My example is the Food and Drug Administration. "From the mid-1960s through much of the 1980s"—I’m quoting a 2002 article in The American Prospect—“Congress played an integral role in drug safety. Lawmakers"—principally Reps. L.H. Fountain and Ted Weiss, but also including Gaylord Nelson and Ted Kennedy in the Senate—“meticulously probed the regulatory histories of dubious drugs, uncovered FDA weaknesses and ordered corrections." Congressional oversight of the FDA began to decline in the late 1980s, while the Democrats still controlled the House. It spiraled sharply downward in 1992-still on the Democrats' watch-with passage of a highly dubious law allowing the industry to pay so-called user fees as a way to speed FDA approval of new drugs. Oversight collapsed utterly in January 1995, when the Republicans took control of the House and drug and tobacco industry lobbyists and campaign contributors took control of them. Speaker Newt Gingrich called the FDA the "leading job killer in America." He denounced its then-Commissioner, David Kessler, who wanted to regulate tobacco, as "a thug" and "a bully." The consequences were catastrophic. In the decade ending in the Fall of 2002, 13 dangerous drugs were pulled from the market after causing many hundreds of deaths and many thousands of injuries. Just seven of the unsafe medicines had caused more than one thousand deaths. Why had the FDA rushed them onto the market? Why had the withdrawals been slow? In a superb investigative series that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002, David Willman of the Los Angeles Times found that the FDA had become a partner rather than a supposed watchdog of the pharmaceutical industry. This is an industry that has more lobbyists than Congress has members, that fills the campaign coffers of friendly lawmakers to overflowing, and that dangles the prospect of high-paying jobs before Capitol Hill overseers who don't oversee. House leaders and committee chairs had no interest in investigating the FDA's role in approving even one of the drugs that caused needless deaths and injuries on their watch. Least of all did they and the other lawmakers who were themselves partners of the industry want to investigate why and how the FDA had become a partner of the industry. As chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Billy Tauzin had prime FDA oversight jurisdiction but didn't exercise it. Over the course of 15 years, he took $218,000 from the drug industry. In January 2005, the Louisiana Republican became president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. His annual pay package is reportedly worth at least $2 million. Tauzin's successor, Joe Barton of Texas, is cut from the same cloth. Early last year in the Senate, in startling contrast, Charles Grassley broke from the Republican pack. The chairman of the Finance Committee undertook tough oversight of the FDA, notably including its handling of childhood antidepressants and Vioxx and related painkillers. Moreover, Grassley served notice that he'd protect the FDA's internal whistleblowers, such as medical officer David Graham, who had called Vioxx a "profound regulatory failure" by an agency "incapable of protecting America against another Vioxx." It's all very well to criticize the FDA and the likes of Gingrich, Tauzin, and Barton. But does the press deserve a pass? No way. For a full decade, it has failed to inform the public of the prolonged, corrupt pre-Grassley abdication of congressional oversight of the agency responsible for the safety of their medicines and of the causes, consequences and implications of that abandonment. I have yet to see a story in which Billy Tauzin, or Joe Barton, or House Speakers, or House and Senate majority leaders, were asked why, say, there'd not been an oversight investigation into any of the seven drugs that caused the deaths of a thousand Americans. Or a story on why these deaths seemed to matter not at all to them while the death of Terry Schiavo became their be-all and end-all. Or a story in which Senator Mike Enzi was asked why his Health committee hadn't done the FDA oversight done by Charles Grassley's Finance Committee. The failure here was one of turning a blind eye when the blood of thousands of thy neighbors was being spilled. Unfortunately, much the same story could be told about other agencies and issues.
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