Appointment of a former pharmaceutical lobbyist to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s top advisory body has outraged recovery advocates, who see the industry as responsible for the nationwide overdose crisis that claimed more than 67,000 lives last year.
The appointment of Jessica Hulsey Nickel to NIDA’s National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse was announced last Thursday. Nickel, 43, is the head of the Washington DC-based Brimley Group lobbying firm and the nonprofit Addiction Policy Forum.
“I am so deeply honored to be a member of the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse and join such an established group of scientific experts and leaders,” Hulsey sent in a statement sent to BuzzFeed News. “Having been an advocate in this field for over 25 years, I am inspired by my fellow advisory council members who are dedicated to helping the tens of millions of families who are impacted by addiction and erasing the stigma associated with substance use disorders.”
From 2014 to 2017, Nickel was a registered lobbyist for Alkermes, makers of the addiction treatment drug, Vivitrol, which has attracted controversy over misleading marketing aimed at judges and jails. Her current nonprofit, the Addiction Policy Forum, receives controversial funding from an industry group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). The funding helps the group run an addiction recovery support effort and phone helpline.
Now her appointment to the NIDA panel has drawn criticism from drug use recovery advocates over her ties to industry funding and her links to a 2018 lobbying campaign led by PhRMA against Minnesota’s tax on opioid drugs.
“It’s disgusting. Why should the industry that created the problem have a seat on a drug abuse advisory panel,” Emily Walden of Fed Up!, a recovery advocate coalition that accepts no money from the pharmaceutical industry, told BuzzFeed News. Walden’s son died of an opioid overdose in 2012.
“People’s children might be alive if it weren’t for the industry pushing these drugs in the first place,” she said.
Drug overdose deaths have increased by more than four times between 1999 and 2017, according to the CDC, leading to over 400,000 fatalities due to opioids alone. The increase is widely tied to widespread prescriptions of opioid painkiller pills — now central to a massive court case against drug makers — that saw people turn to heroin and even more deadly fentanyl opioids as increased prescribing controls led the pill supply to dry up in the last five years.
Last November, Nickel became embroiled in Minnesota’s legislative fight over a state tax on opioids, offering to accompany PhRMA representatives who opposed the tax to a meeting with lawmakers. The opioid tax has since passed and has added about $21 million to Minnesota’s funding for drug recovery. The meeting ended up being cancelled, and Nickel told news outlets that she took no position on the bill, but recovery advocates saw her willingness to accompany pharmaceutical industry representatives in opposing the bill as a sign of mixed motives. “Sometimes our resistance to working with new partners is an old way of thinking,” she told the New York Times, in response to criticism of working with industry.
“Our lawmakers asked us who is this person flying in from Washington to tell us about recovery, and we told them not to meet with her, that she doesn’t represent the community,” addiction counselor Randy Anderson of Bold North Recovery and Consulting in Minneapolis told BuzzFeed News.
“They lobbied hard against the bill,” Anderson said. “It’s very disappointing that NIDA would put this person on advisory panel.”
Two weeks after the proposed November meeting, the Addiction Policy Forum received a multimillion dollar donation from PhRMA, “to fund state and local programs, as well as support for new public policies that help families and individuals impacted by the crisis.”
That funding, and its timing, drew another wave of criticism from recovery advocates.
“Why is PhRMA funding state and local programs through Addiction Policy Forum rather than through the states, counties and municipalities themselves,” asked Daniel Busch of FED UP! in a December blog post. “The answer is that pharmaceutical industry support for APF is dirt cheap compared to the money the pharmaceutical industry should be paying to fund state, county, and municipal programs.”
In April, Anderson traveled to Washington D.C. to protest Nickel’s testimony in Congress at a hearing.
In her biography sent to BuzzFeed News, Nickel noted that her parents both suffered from drug use disorders. She also serves on the board of directors for the DEA Educational Foundation and sits on the Recovery Ohio Advisory Council.
“Jessica receives no direct payment from the pharmaceutical industry,” Addiction Policy Forum chief of staff, Jay Ruais, told BuzzFeed News by email. Nickel received more than $189,000 in salary from the nonprofit in 2017, according to IRS tax forms, a year when its total revenue was $4.5 million. The group asked for an extension on filing its 2018 tax forms, which record the first year of PhRMA donations, so Nickel’s new salary will not be made public until November.
Recent complaints have also surfaced about around 20 job losses at the nonprofit over the last year. Ruais defended the moves, saying, “Our 24/7 helpline is staffed by a dedicated team of 12, including an addiction psychiatrist, a PhD clinical supervisor, and other specialists in the field. This is the largest team we have fielded on the helpline, having grown to meet the needs of those calling for help.”
As for NIDA, “The process for appointment to the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse is extensive,” said institute chief of staff Jack Stein in a statement sent to BuzzFeed News. He added “we look for expertise in areas of science that are most relevant to the Institute’s mission—currently, there are several members with expertise related to the opioid crisis…because of the focus on this area of science.”
Current lobbyists are not allowed to serve on the council, Stein added, and members are required to fill out financial conflict of interest disclosure forms.
Chaired by NIDA director Nora Volkow, who received a “Pillars of Excellence” award from the Addiction Policy Forum in 2018, the advisory council has 17 members, most of them public health researchers or officials. The one pharmaceutical industry representative on the council is neuroscientist Christian Heidbreder, chief scientific officer of Indivior Inc., maker of the widely used opioid-addiction treatment Suboxone.
Indivior was indicted in April, “for engaging in an illicit nationwide scheme to increase prescriptions of Suboxone,” according to the Justice Department.