Opi­oid mak­ers, distrib­u­tors tar­geted in nu­mer­ous suits

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NATIONAL - SCOTT HIGHAM AND LENNY BERN­STEIN

The com­pa­nies that man­u­fac­ture and dis­trib­ute highly ad­dic­tive painkillers are fac­ing a mul­ti­tude of law­suits for the toll their prod­uct has taken on com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try as the worst drug epi­demic in U.S. his­tory con­tin­ues to es­ca­late.

Within the past year, at least 25 states, cities and coun­ties have filed civil cases against man­u­fac­tur­ers, distrib­u­tors and large drug­store chains that make up the $13 bil­lion-a-year opi­oid in­dus­try. In the past few weeks alone, the at­tor­neys gen­eral for Ohio and Mis­souri, along with the dis­trict at­tor­neys for three coun­ties in Ten­nessee, filed suits against the in­dus­try — and the at­tor­ney gen­eral for Ok­la­homa filed suit on Fri­day.

The strat­egy has been prompted by frus­tra­tion over ris­ing death rates and the in­creas­ing costs of ad­dress­ing the con­tin­u­ing pub­lic health cri­sis. Af­ter years of gov­ern­ment and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal firms fail­ing to con­trol the prob­lem, some lawyers say the suits have the po­ten­tial to force the in­dus­try to curb prac­tices that con­trib­ute to it.

“If they’re not go­ing to do it vol­un­tar­ily, we’re go­ing to drag them to the ta­ble and make them,” said Ohio At­tor­ney Gen­eral Mike DeWine, who sued five drug man­u­fac­tur­ers for the costs of the opi­oid epi­demic.

Dozens of other state, county and city gov­ern­ments and lo­cal law en­force­ment agen­cies are con­sid­er­ing le­gal ac­tion. Some states are in­ter­view­ing law firms.

Delaware is among a hand­ful of states that are is­su­ing “re­quests for pro­pos­als” from law firms.

In ad­di­tion, more than half the coun­try’s state at­tor­neys gen­eral — Repub­li­cans and Democrats — have banded to­gether to in­ves­ti­gate the in­dus­try.

Two con­gres­sional panels also are ex­am­in­ing the in­dus­try — the Se­nate Home­land Se­cu­rity and Gov­ern­men­tal Af­fairs Com­mit­tee and the House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee. The Jus­tice Depart­ment’s In­spec­tor Gen­eral is in­ves­ti­gat­ing why the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion slowed en­force­ment ef­forts against drug dis­tri­bu­tion com­pa­nies.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the com­pa­nies deny wrong­do­ing and vow to vig­or­ously de­fend them­selves. They said they have taken steps to pre­vent the diver­sion of their drugs to the black mar­ket. Stem­ming the epi­demic, they said, will take a co­or­di­nated ef­fort by doc­tors, the in­dus­try and fed­eral and lo­cal gov­ern­ment agen­cies.

In a blow to the in­dus­try, the D.C. Court of Ap­peals on Fri­day re­jected ar­gu­ments from a drug dis­trib­u­tor, Mas­ters Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal, that would have un­der­mined the DEA’s abil­ity to hold com­pa­nies re­spon­si­ble for pain pills that are di­verted to the black mar­ket.

The law­suits come as states and com­mu­ni­ties grap­ple with the eco­nomic im­pact of a pre­scrip­tion drug epi­demic that has re­sulted in nearly 180,000 over­dose deaths be­tween 2000 and 2015 — more than three times the num­ber of Amer­i­cans who died in the Viet­nam War. The epi­demic has led to thou­sands more deaths from over­doses of heroin and fen­tanyl, which are be­com­ing eas­ier and cheaper to ob­tain than pre­scrip­tion drugs.

The suits are rem­i­nis­cent of the to­bacco cases filed two decades ago. In the 1990s, 46 at­tor­neys gen­eral even­tu­ally com­bined their re­sources to sue the to­bacco com­pa­nies. In 1998, the in­dus­try set­tled those suits, pay­ing more than $200 bil­lion.

Dur­ing a meet­ing of the Demo­cratic At­tor­neys Gen­eral As­so­ci­a­tion in May in Port­land, Ore., in­dus­try of­fi­cials said they were not to blame for the epi­demic. In­stead, they said dur­ing a panel dis­cus­sion that they were part of the so­lu­tion and had put pro­grams in place to pre­vent the il­le­gal use of pain pills.

Grant Woods, a for­mer Ari­zona at­tor­ney gen­eral who was the first Repub­li­can to sue the to­bacco com­pa­nies, said he was ap­palled by what he heard. As the of­fi­cials fin­ished their pre­sen­ta­tions, Woods stood from his seat in the crowded six­th­floor ball­room of The Nines re­sort ho­tel and told them they all de­served to be sued.

Woods has joined forces with an­other vet­eran of the to­bacco law­suits, Mike Moore, who served as the at­tor­ney gen­eral for Mis­sis­sippi and filed the first of the to­bacco suits. The two at­tor­neys, along with other high-pro­file lawyers, are now work­ing for Ohio and Mis­sis­sippi on their opi­oid cases, and they are sign­ing up other states to sue the com­pa­nies.

The suits tar­get some of the big­gest names in the busi­ness, in­clud­ing McKes­son, John­son & John­son and CVS.

Some of the suits al­lege that the com­pa­nies fraud­u­lently mar­keted opi­oids to the pub­lic. Oth­ers claim that the com­pa­nies failed to re­port sus­pi­ciously large or­ders of pre­scrip­tion pain pills placed by distrib­u­tors and phar­ma­cies.

McKes­son, the largest drug dis­tri­bu­tion com­pany in the coun­try, said in a state­ment: “While McKes­son doesn’t man­u­fac­ture, pre­scribe, or dis­pense opi­oids, we have taken steps to play a lead­er­ship role in com­bat­ting this epi­demic in close part­ner­ship with doc­tors, phar­ma­cists, the DEA and other or­ga­ni­za­tions across the sup­ply chain.”

John­son & John­son’s phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal unit, Janssen Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal, is­sued a state­ment say­ing the com­pany is “con­tin­u­ing to work with stake­hold­ers to sup­port” the “safe and ap­pro­pri­ate use” of opi­oids.

CVS said it has “strin­gent” pro­ce­dures to keep pre­scrip­tion pain pills out of the hands of drug ad­dicts and deal­ers.

“CVS Health is com­mit­ted to the high­est stan­dards of ethics and busi­ness prac­tices, in­clud­ing com­ply­ing with all fed­eral and state laws gov­ern­ing the dis­pens­ing of con­trolled sub­stance pre­scrip­tions, and is ded­i­cated to re­duc­ing pre­scrip­tion drug abuse and diver­sion,” the com­pany said in a state­ment.

SOURCE: Kaiser Fam­ily Foun­da­tion AP

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