WASHINGTON, D.C. — A weekend fundraiser for Ohio U.S. Senate candidate JD Vance was abruptly canceled Friday after Spectrum News notified the Vance campaign it would report the host is one of several Ohio pain doctors cited in a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma and others for the amount of opioids they prescribed and the amount of money they received from major drug companies.
Vance, a Republican venture capitalist and author, and Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan are battling for the seat held by retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman, a contest in which the opioid crisis in Ohio has been a flashpoint.
When Spectrum News first reached out to the Vance campaign Wednesday, the campaign said it was unaware the host was cited in the lawsuit and that he “hasn’t ever been accused of wrongdoing, never mind found guilty of wrongdoing in a court of law.” On Friday, shortly after being told Spectrum News was about to publish the story, the campaign replied that the organizers decided to cancel the fundraiser so it wouldn’t distract from Vance’s campaign.
The fundraiser was scheduled for Saturday at the Cincinnati home of Dr. Rajbir Minhas. “The Asian Indian Alliance invites you to [a] special reception with Ohio Senate candidate JD Vance,” according to a copy of the invitation obtained by Spectrum News. The alliance is an organization that “seeks to promote active participation in the political process by Asian Indians and create a strong political presence in the State of Ohio,” and Minhas is its vice president, according to its website.
The sweeping lawsuit was filed by Medical Mutual of Ohio against Purdue Pharma and other drug makers, distributors and pharmacies for their roles in the opioid crisis.
In an updated filing in 2018, Medical Mutual of Ohio listed Minhas and 11 other Ohio doctors in a section focusing on a widespread industry practice of drug manufacturers paying doctors to pitch opioids to their colleagues. The filing alleges the companies “regularly used” these “speaker program monies to reward ‘high writer’ Ohio doctors.”
“Cincinnati, Ohio pain doctor Dr. Rajbir Minhas is among the top-10 prescribers of Oxycodone-Acetaminophen in the country and has received some $145,281.11 between 2013 and 2016 from eight of the defendants: Insys, Teva, Depomed, Mallinckrodt, Janssen, Purdue, Endo, and Actavis,” the complaint reads.
The filing cites information in databases compiled by the news organization ProPublica and by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, known as CMS. After the 2018 filing, ProPublica updated the database in 2019; Minhas dropped one notch, to be the 11th-top prescriber of the drug nationally. ProPublica has not updated the database since then.
The lawsuit is still pending. Minhas is not a defendant in the litigation, and has not been accused of criminal wrongdoing or charged with a crime. He did not respond to two separate requests for comment. A spokesperson for the Asian Indian Alliance also did not respond to an email request for comment.
Oxycodone, a powerful and addictive painkiller, was the main ingredient in the pain medicine sold by Purdue Pharma under the brand name OxyContin.
The CMS data shows that from 2015 to 2016, Purdue Pharma paid Minhas nearly $26,000 for “services other than consulting, including serving as faculty or as a speaker at a venue other than a continuing education program.” The payments were among more than $200,000 he received for such services from pharmaceutical companies, including several cited in the 2018 lawsuit, from 2013 to 2018, according to the CMS and ProPublica data. The database shows Minhas did not receive any money from Purdue Pharma for speaking engagements from 2017 to 2021. Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy in 2019.
Such speaking engagements typically involve a physician being paid to promote a drug to their peers. While not illegal, the lawsuit alleges pharmaceutical companies would select “a high prescriber to serve on paid ‘speakers’ bureaus’ and/or to attend programs with free meals and other amenities.”
The other Ohio pain doctors cited alongside Minhas received similar payments, ranging from the mid-five figures to over half a million dollars in a similar period of time.
The Medical Mutual suit is one of many by insurance companies and third-party payers seeking reimbursements from the drug industry for allegedly excessive or unnecessary prescriptions of opioids, according to attorney Peter Weinberger, of Spangenberg, Shibley and Liber of Cleveland, one of the firms pressing the case.
In a separate case led by multiple states, local governments, Native American tribes and others, Purdue Pharma reached a settlement in March 2022 worth at least $10 billion for its role in the opioid crisis, which has been linked to more than 500,000 deaths in the U.S over the last 20 years.
Ohio has been hit particularly hard by the opioid epidemic, recording 2,500 to 4,300 deaths a year due to unintentional opioid overdoses from 2015 to 2020, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
On Thursday, a spokeswoman for the Vance campaign told Spectrum News, “We were unaware of Dr. Minhas being mentioned in this filing. At the same time, Dr. Minhas hasn’t ever been accused of wrongdoing, never mind found guilty of wrongdoing in a court of law. He’s one of the few doctors in Cincinnati who practices non-interventional chronic pain management. This is in stark contrast to Tim Ryan who has knowingly taken tens of thousands of dollars from the very Big Pharma companies who had to pay billions in a settlement for their role in Ohio’s opioid epidemic.“
The Associated Press reported this month that Ryan has accepted $27,000 in campaign donations since 2007 from “drug distributors blamed for key roles in the [opioid] crisis."
Vance raised the issue of the donations in a debate with Ryan on Monday night, saying, “Why are the people who have gotten rich off the opioid epidemic funding Tim Ryan and attacking me? The answer is obvious. Because this guy is the biggest fan of pharma.”
Ryan has said the donations did not affect how he voted in Congress to fight the opioid epidemic. His campaign points out that most of the $27,000 was donated before his Senate race, and that it represents 0.05% of the more than $50 million he has raised over the course of his political career.
At the debate, Ryan cited another Associated Press story, about a nonprofit Vance started in 2016 to fight opioid abuse. The AP revealed that the nonprofit, Our Ohio Renewal, hired a doctor with ties to Purdue Pharma. Other reports about the charity show it raised little money before shutting down, all while paying one of Vance’s political advisers.
“I didn’t start a fake nonprofit pretending like I was going to help people with addiction, like JD Vance did… in fact, he brought in somebody from Purdue Pharma to be the spokesperson for the nonprofit,” Ryan said.
Vance denied the nonprofit was used for political purposes, said he put $80,000 of his own money into it, and said he believes it helped some Ohioans.