Lawmakers dismiss McKinsey apology over opioid crisis as ’empty’

The top executive at McKinsey & Company, who appeared on Wednesday for the first time before Congress to answer for the consultancy’s role in fueling the opioid crisis, has come under heavy criticism from Democratic lawmakers. One compared the company’s earnings advising Purdue Pharma and other pharmaceutical companies to the “blood money” of drug dealers.

Bob Sternfels, managing partner of McKinsey, testifying remotely to the House Oversight and Reform Committee, apologized for McKinsey’s work in helping to boost sales at opioid manufacturers. He said the company “failed to recognize the broader context of what was happening in the society around us.”

But Sternfels didn’t budge on the hearing’s main issue: whether McKinsey simultaneously advises opioid manufacturers and its regulator, the Food and Drug Administration, represented a conflict of interest. On that front, he insisted, McKinsey was “transparent.”

“McKinsey has not served – no – served both the FDA and Purdue on opioid-related matters,” Sternfels told the committee. “As McKinsey and the FDA have made clear, our work for the FDA has focused on administrative and operational topics, including improvements to organizational structure, business processes, and technology.”

To some Democratic members, Sternfels’ words sounded hollow. “Your apologies seem hollow and insincere,” said Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.

McKinsey had worked with Purdue, Johnson & Johnson and other opioid manufacturers to identify doctors who prescribed painkillers, resulting in highly addictive drugs reaching some of the most vulnerable people in the United States. Work for Purdue began in 2004 and continued for 15 years as opioid-related deaths soared.

McKinsey stopped advising opioid manufacturers in 2019 and agreed to pay about $600 million to end investigations by state attorneys general into its role in helping to “boost” opioid sales. The firm, which did not admit wrongdoing, was prevented from taking on such work in the future.

Carolyn Maloney, the New York Democrat leading the committee, which launched its own investigation into McKinsey in November, said the company’s “conflicts and conduct are among the worst I’ve seen in my years in government.” She has been in Congress for nearly three decades.

“We are demanding answers from one of the most elusive and secretive consulting firms in the world,” said Cori Bush, Democrat of Missouri.

In one conversation, Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, asked Sternfels why a McKinsey consultant put a smiley face in an email asking whether doctors who prescribe more would notice the FDA’s new rules requiring tougher language for drug labels. painkillers.

“I completely agree that a smiley face is totally inappropriate,” said Sternfels, who took over McKinsey’s top job last July after McKinsey said it stopped working for opioid makers.

The committee released a report this month that found that at least 22 McKinsey consultants have worked for Purdue and the FDA since 2010. Even as McKinsey served the FDA offices charged with approving new drugs and monitoring their safety, it also advised Purdue on their interactions with the agency. Internal McKinsey documents, first reported by The New York Times, show that the company cited its connections with regulators as it sought more work at pharmaceutical companies.

In a 2014 email to Purdue’s chief executive, a consultant emphasized “who we know and what we know,” specifically highlighting the company’s work for the FDA.

On April 5, a group of Senate Democrats sent a letter to the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the FDA, requesting an investigation into potential conflicts of interest arising from McKinsey’s work.

Since 2008, McKinsey has received more than $140 million in fees from the FDA, advising the agency on a wide range of topics, including reviewing the division responsible for overseeing approvals of drugs such as opioids.

On Tuesday, at a separate Senate hearing on the FDA, Patrizia Cavazzoni, director of the agency’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said she “anticipated” that the agency would not issue new contracts to McKinsey pending the results of any investigations.

In testimony to the House committee on Wednesday, Maura Healey, the Massachusetts attorney general, disagreed with Sternfels’ denial that McKinsey had a conflict of interest in working with Purdue and the FDA. worked with pharmaceutical companies in 2008 to “unite” to avoid proposed safety requirements for opioids, including Purdue’s OxyContin. She also referred to internal documents showing that McKinsey’s relationship with the FDA “would benefit Purdue and its bottom line.”

Mrs. Maloney asked Mr. Sternfels how much McKinsey had gained from Purdue’s advice, a number available on documents the company had delivered to Ms. Healey.

“Deputy, today I don’t have that number; if that’s of interest, I’m happy to dig it up and get back to the committee,” he said. She then asked Mrs. Healey, who responded: $86 million.

Mrs. Maloney also said she would introduce legislation to require stricter standards by the agency that oversees the rules governing conflicts of interest in federal hiring. A similar bill was introduced this month in the Senate.

As the hearing drew to a close, Representative Gerry Connolly, a Democrat from Virginia, asked Sternfels about a slide from a presentation McKinsey prepared for Purdue in 2013. He described an incentive system for sales reps that included a “prize in cash”. and “celebrity status,” with images of Donald J. Trump and a man in a suit fanning a pile of cash.

“Sir. Sternfels, 600,000 Americans are dead,” Connolly said. “Many people are still struggling with addiction. Do you have any regrets you want to share with the committee?”

Mr. Sternfels replied, “I’m sorry we didn’t act sooner, sir. If I could repeat that, I would have put the client protocols in place a decade earlier. I would have come to an agreement even quicker and we would have stopped serving the manufacturers despite whatever goals there were, and I already apologized for that, to actually be part of the solution.”

Mrs. Tlaib, the Michigan Democrat, was not pleased, comparing McKinsey’s work to that of drug dealers.

“As McKinsey celebrated its blood money, communities were being torn apart,” she said. “You might be wearing suits and you might have these fancy offices, but you’re doing the same thing.”

Committee Republicans played little or no role in questioning Sternfels. They said the audience’s focus was misdirected and should have focused on what they described as a more pressing issue: the trafficking of fentanyl across the southern border.

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