Health Care

Local government suits accuse opioid makers of turning 'patients into drug addicts'

Why it’s so hard to break an opioid addiction

More than half a million people died between 2000 and 2015 from opioids. Today, opioid deaths are considered an epidemic.
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More than half a million people died between 2000 and 2015 from opioids. Today, opioid deaths are considered an epidemic.

Cities, counties and Native American tribes across the nation are filing lawsuits against opioid manufacturers in an effort to recover damages from the widespread opioid epidemic.

The suits largely accuse pharmaceutical companies of aggressively pushing painkillers while falsely representing the danger of addiction, turning "patients into drug addicts for their own corporate profit," one suit said.

In Kansas and Missouri, at least 16 cities and counties have filed suits. Nationwide, more than 400 separate lawsuits have been filed, according to The New York Times.

"Opioid manufacturers misrepresented the significant risks of addiction associated with opioid use for chronic pain," said Brian Madden, an attorney with Kansas City-based Wagstaff & Cartmell, which is representing local governments in nine suits in Kansas and Missouri.

"Moreover, opioid manufacturers and distributors failed to inform the federal government of suspicious prescribing activities in Missouri and Kansas. These actions caused the over-prescription of opioids and the current opioid public health crisis."

The suits are reminiscent of those that led to the 1998 settlement between the five largest cigarette manufacturers and the attorneys general of 46 states, resulting in billions of dollars sent back to states and new restrictions on advertising, especially to kids.

But in the tobacco cases, a significant portion of that money never made it back to the communities that were directly affected.

So now, local governments are hoping to get a piece of potential billions in settlement money.

"We wanted to make sure our citizens were protected based on costs incurred," said Eric Yost, counsel for Sedgwick County, Kan., which filed its opioid-related suit in December.

"There's no guarantee we would receive a share or a fair share of anything the state might get," Yost said. "That's not to be negative, but that’s just reality since the money would be controlled by the legislature and governor. ... It's not free to provide help."

If the suits are successful, they could lead to more funding for local governments to recoup the costs of law enforcement and fire departments dealing with opioid addicts, or could potentially help increase funding for mental health and addiction services in communities that were affected.

Here are the local governments that have filed suits so far:

The suits are not a class action lawsuit, where a single lawsuit is filed to represent the interest of many affected parties. Instead, they're what’s called multidistrict litigation, which aims to reduce costs and be more efficient.

Madden said these cases filed in Kansas and Missouri will be removed from the local federal district courts and filed to the National Prescription Opiate Litigation, which a panel of federal judges has decided will be overseen by Judge Dan Aaron Polster in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio.

The cases may be consolidated with others across the country, and if they are not resolved, sent back to Missouri and Kansas federal district courts.

At least one more local government is considering a suit. Overland Park recently put out a request for proposal to explore what the damages may have been for the city. It heard back from three law firms, which would be tasked with finding the particular costs associated with overdoses there from police and the fire department, along with costs of the lifesaving drug, Narcan, which can be given in overdose cases by emergency personnel.

Payment to the firms would be contingent on whether the city actually receives settlement money, said Overland Park spokesperson Sean Reilly.

Polster said in a proceeding earlier this year that he wants the parties to prepare for settlement discussions and "do something meaningful to abate this crisis and to do it in 2018."

The Star reported earlier this month that among the defendants is Purdue Pharma, which the Bourbon County, Kan., suit says sells as much as $3 billion worth of OxyContin a year, four times as much as it sold in 2006. The suit says OxyContin now constitutes about 30 percent of the entire market for pain killers.

Purdue responded to a similar lawsuit in Mississippi last year by saying the company was "deeply troubled by the opioid crisis" and was "dedicated to being part of the solution." Earlier this year Purdue said it would stop marketing opioids to doctors.