County group seeks pay­out in opi­oid suit

Case ac­cuses drug firms of min­i­miz­ing risk of ad­dic­tion

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - ARKANSAS - CHELSEA BOOZER

The As­so­ci­a­tion of Arkansas Coun­ties has filed a fed­eral law­suit against sev­eral phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies to re­coup money paid out of its health in­sur­ance fund for mem­bers’ opi­oid pre­scrip­tions.

The suit al­leges the man­u­fac­tur­ers and dis­trib­u­tors of the drugs em­barked on an il­le­gal mar­ket­ing cam­paign to mis­rep­re­sent the drugs’ ef­fects, lead­ing to abuse and over­pre­scrip­tion.

The same group of at­tor­neys who filed the case filed an­other one with the same claims on be­half of the Arkansas Mu­nic­i­pal League and its health ben­e­fit fund. While that law­suit was vol­un­tar­ily dis­missed by the Mu­nic­i­pal League for tech­ni­cal fixes this week, it will be re­filed soon, at­tor­neys said. An ar­ti­cle in Fri­day’s Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette in­cor­rectly stated the rea­son for the dis­missal.

The law­suits say the league’s and as­so­ci­a­tion’s in­sur­ance funds “have un­nec­es­sar­ily spent money on opi­oid pre­scrip­tions for chronic pain” and “spent tens of mil­lions more on costs di­rectly at­trib­ut­able to the flood of opi­oids de­fen­dants un­leashed on the state, in­clud­ing costs for ad­dic­tion

treat­ment and the treat­ment of ba­bies born ad­dicted to opi­oids.”

The groups are seek­ing dam­ages to re­coup the costs for ex­ces­sive pre­scrip­tions and the re­sult­ing ad­dic­tion and treat­ment costs.

The lawyer team rep­re­sent­ing the two gov­ern­ment groups also plans to file law­suits on be­half of in­di­vid­ual cities and coun­ties in Arkansas al­leg­ing unique dam­ages for each in an ef­fort to re­coup losses the lo­cal­i­ties have suf­fered in re­spond­ing to the na­tion­wide opi­oid epi­demic in their ju­ris­dic­tions.

Arkansas has the sec­ond-high­est opi­oid pre­scrib­ing rate in the U.S., at more than 114 pre­scrip­tions for ev­ery 100 peo­ple, be­hind only Alabama, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion. Opi­oid-re­lated over­dose deaths have in­creased over the past decade in the state, although ex­act fig­ures are un­clear.

Lo­cal gov­ern­ments have spent money re­spond­ing to the in­creased hos­pi­tal vis­its, 911 calls, crimes and jail­ing.

The law­suits to be filed on be­half of Arkansas lo­cal­i­ties are sim­i­lar to the roughly 100 oth­ers filed by towns, coun­ties and states all cross the U.S.

This week’s law­suits are about the same is­sue and bring sim­i­lar claims but are in­stead on be­half of the health ben­e­fit funds and work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion trusts of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Arkansas Coun­ties and the Arkansas Mu­nic­i­pal League.

“In ad­di­tion to coun­ties and cities and the state of Arkansas los­ing money, many in­sur­ance com­pa­nies and self-in­sured funds have lost money,” said Ernie Corey, an Alabama lawyer who spe­cial­izes in multi-dis­trict lit­i­ga­tion who has been re­tained as lead coun­sel to rep­re­sent the or­ga­ni­za­tions and lo­cal­i­ties in the suits.

Chris Villines, di­rec­tor of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Arkansas Coun­ties, said the group’s claims on be­half of its in­sur­ance funds are com­pletely dif­fer­ent from dam­ages cities and coun­ties have en­coun­tered.

The team that has been re­tained to han­dle the opi­oid-re­lated law­suits in­clude 13 at­tor­neys from six firms or or­ga­ni­za­tions. The firms are Birmingham, Ala.-based Cory Wat­son law firm; Lit­tle Rock­based Red­dick Moss PLLC; Texarkana, Texas-based Wyly Rom­mel PLLC; Lit­tle Rock­based Rain­wa­ter, Holt and Sex­ton P.A.; as well as coun­sel for the Mu­nic­i­pal League and As­so­ci­a­tion of Arkansas Coun­ties.

The over­all claims in the two law­suits filed on be­half of the in­sur­ance funds ar­gue that opi­oid man­u­fac­tur­ers use a mar­ket­ing scheme to per­suade doc­tors and pa­tients that opi­oids can cure chronic pain, but don’t dis­close that a large amount of those pa­tients are likely to be­come ad­dicted to the drugs and suf­fer from long-term ef­fects.

The law­suits, like the oth­ers filed across the na­tion in re­cent years, al­lege that the man­u­fac­tur­ers and dis­trib­u­tors min­i­mize the risks and over­state the ben­e­fits of the drugs. That, the law­suits claim, has led to wide­spread over­pre­scrip­tion and what gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials are call­ing the worst drug epi­demic in U.S. his­tory.

De­fen­dants named in the Arkansas cases are: Pur­due Pharma Inc., The Pur­due Fred­er­ick Com­pany, Cephalon Inc., Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals USA Inc., Janssen Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals Inc., John­son & John­son, Endo Health So­lu­tions Inc., Wat­son Lab­o­ra­to­ries Inc., Ac­tavis Pharma Inc., Ac­tavis LLC, Amerisource­ber­gen Drug Cor­po­ra­tion, Car­di­nal Health Inc. and McKes­son Cor­po­ra­tion.

At­tor­neys rep­re­sent­ing par­ties bring­ing claims against the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies said the com­pa­nies have bor­rowed a page from to­bacco’s play­book. To­bacco com­pa­nies were suc­cess­fully sued in the 1990s.

The Health­care Dis­tri­bu­tion Al­liance, which rep­re­sents some of the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies, re­leased a state­ment Fri­day about na­tional re­port­ing on the opi­oid abuse epi­demic, say­ing it was one-sided.

The al­liance said many fac­tors led to the epi­demic, in­clud­ing the U.S. Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s an­nual ap­proval of in­creased pro­duc­tion of opi­oids.

“Our mem­bers op­er­ate highly-reg­u­lated, di­ver­si­fied busi­nesses and have re­spon­si­bil­ity for trans­port­ing all pre­scrip­tion medicines, in­clud­ing can­cer treat­ments, spe­cialty medicines, vac­cines and other health prod­ucts. Opi­oids are a small per­cent­age — roughly 1–2 per­cent — of what our mem­bers de­liver to li­censed health­care providers and phar­ma­cies,” the state­ment said.

“Fur­ther, dis­trib­u­tors re­spond to de­mand in the mar­ket for medicines — they don’t cre­ate it,” the state­ment said. “Ex­pect­ing dis­trib­u­tors to have uni­lat­er­ally stemmed the flow of opi­oids — a flow that in­creased yearly with the ex­plicit over­sight and ap­proval of the DEA — is a trans­par­ent at­tempt by for­mer DEA of­fi­cials to shift the blame for their own failed ap­proach to reg­u­la­tion dur­ing the growth and peak of the epi­demic.”

There are cur­rently hear­ings tak­ing place be­fore multi-dis­trict lit­i­ga­tion judges to de­ter­mine whether all of the fed­eral law­suits against about 70 drug com­pa­nies should be grouped to­gether. The next hear­ing is set for Jan. 9 in Cleve­land.

Cory, the Alabama at­tor­ney who was re­tained by the Arkansas as­so­ci­a­tions, said he will be at the hear­ing and hopes the judge will make some pre­lim­i­nary de­ci­sions on how the group lit­i­ga­tion will be or­ga­nized.

Cory and the other at­tor­neys rep­re­sent­ing the Arkansas cities and coun­ties think they’ve po­si­tioned them­selves uniquely to have a seat at the ta­ble when it comes to try­ing the cases. The at­tor­ney team says it is the first ever to use the tech­nique of col­lec­tively rep­re­sent­ing es­sen­tially ev­ery town and county in the state — at least all that agree to sign on to the lit­i­ga­tion — in an ef­fort to have a big­ger voice.

If an at­tor­ney rep­re­sented just one city in Arkansas, he would likely be over­shad­owed in the group lit­i­ga­tion by big­ger towns and states, the at­tor­neys said.

The team has not yet de­cided whether it will file group lit­i­ga­tion list­ing all of the plain­tiffs or file in­di­vid­ual law­suits on be­half of each county and city in their re­spec­tive cir­cuit courts.

“The strat­egy ab­so­lutely has not changed. We are work­ing out the venue as to whether we can pull all of them to­gether in one large law­suit or whether they have to be bro­ken up by court. We are work­ing through those is­sues right now,” said Jerome Tap­ley, an at­tor­ney at the Cory Wat­son law firm.

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