House Probing Trump’s Push For VA To “Corner The Market” On Risky Antidepressant
House Democrats are investigating President Donald Trump’s push for the Department of Veterans Affairs to “corner the market” on a new antidepressant for treating suicidal ideation that has sparked controversy over its safety and efficacy, according to ProPublica.
As part of the investigation, the chairmen of the House Veterans Affairs and Oversight Committees sent letters to three of Trump’s informal advisers, known within the VA as the “Mar-a-Lago Crowd” requesting emails and financial records related to the matter.
Marvel Entertainment chairman Ike Perlmutter, physician Bruce Moskowitz and lawyer Marc Sherman were revealed by ProPublica in 2018 to have “sweeping influence over the VA despite their lack of any relevant experience, such as having served in the U.S. military or government.”
The three men earned their nickname for the fact that they met at Trump’s Palm Beach resort.
At issue is Johnson & Johnson’s new drug called Spravato, which Trump has endorsed as a promising new treatment to help prevent veteran suicides, which the VA says happen at a rate of 20 per day.
All three men said through their joint spokesman that they played no role in the VA’s consideration of the drug, ProPublica reported.
“Our volunteer activity was motivated solely by a desire to see America’s veterans get the best possible care from the VA,” they said in a statement. “We had no authority over decision making, rather we offered advice for VA leadership to accept or reject as they saw fit. We did not seek or receive any personal or financial gain.”
The trio had worked with Johnson & Johnson on a suicide-prevention campaign in 2017 “that culminated in an appearance at the New York Stock Exchange,” and “put the VA secretary alongside Johnson & Johnson representatives and superhero characters from Perlmutter’s company, Marvel, and its parent, Disney.”
Spravato — which “is a nasal spray form of esketamine, a variant of the anesthetic ketamine” — won approval from the Food and Drug Administration in March 2019, though the FDA imposed restrictions on its use due to “the risk of serious adverse outcomes” and “the potential for abuse and misuse.”
Despite the fact that some experts have been cautious about evidence supporting the drug’s performance, noting “weak results from clinical trials and shortcomings in the trials’ methodologies,” Johnson & Johnson immediately focused on the VA once FDA approval was granted.
“On March 6, the day after the FDA acted, a company official emailed Deborah Scher, an adviser to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, from a Spravato launch event, saying, ‘We have been talking about you and the VA throughout the day,’” ProPublica reported, based on emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
On March 7, Wilkie spoke with Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky, apparently at the urging of the president.
“I had seen it somewhere, and I’ve read it, regularly, quite a bit about it,” Trump said of the new drug at a White House opioids event on June 12. “I said, ‘Order — corner the market on it and give it to anybody that has the problem.’”
ProPublica said the White House declined to comment on where the president saw or read about new drug, and a Johnson & Johnsons spokesman said the company did not discuss Spravato with Trump.