Following the Opioid Lawsuit
As of November 2018, more than 600 city, state, county, and Native American governments have filed lawsuits against major pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors, and doctors for reasons related to prescription opioid addiction.
Since 1999, opioid prescriptions have more than tripled in the United States, and with that increase, there has also been a similar rise in fatal overdoses related to prescription opioids. Opioids accounted for more than 42,000 deaths in 2016, comprising nearly two-thirds of the total deaths from drug overdose in the country. Over the past two decades, more than 200,000 people in the U.S. have died from an overdose involving prescription opioids.
This crisis has resulted in untold damage to families and communities, both in the toll of lives taken as well as the economic burden associated with emergency room visits, lost work days, and money spent fighting drug-related crime.
All of this had led to a coalition of lawsuits being filed, alleging that the scourge of prescription opioid abuse can be attributed to the false advertising, lack of regulation surrounding these drugs, and dubious prescribing practices.
Who are the Plaintiffs?
The plaintiffs are a coalition of city, state, county, and Native American governments across the nation. These lawsuits include families affected by opioid addiction and governments dealing with the economic burden of battling this crisis. The states included among these lawsuits are:
- New Hampshire
- New Mexico
- North Carolina
- West Virginia
Who are the Accused?
The accused parties include major manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies, and individual doctors. Some of the major names include:
- Purdue Pharma
- Abbott Laboratories
- Endo Pharmaceuticals
- Johnson & Johnson
- Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals
- Teva Pharmaceuticals
- Janssen Pharmaceuticals
- Barr Laboratories
- Actavis Pharma,
- Watson Laboratories,
- Insys Therapeutics
- AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp.
- Cardinal Health
- McKesson Corp
- Express Scripts
- CVS Health
- UnitedHealth Group
What are the Legal Arguments?
Two major arguments are being made in these cases, primarily against the manufacturers and distributors of prescription opioids.
This case is leveled at the manufacturer level, with claims arguing that these drug companies, such as Purdue Pharma, Allergan, and Cardinal Health, hid evidence of the dangers of opioids and downplayed their addicting properties. They also allege that these companies used aggressive and misleading marketing tactics as well as offered financial kickbacks for doctors to prescribe these medications. By encouraging doctors to overprescribe these pills while downplaying their addictive properties, these companies effectively caused the opioid crisis.
This case is leveled at the distributor level and claims that distributors supplied these pills in excess of what should have reasonably been provided. This is backed by data showing that in some areas of the country more painkillers were prescribed than there were people. This violates laws that required distributors to monitor their drug supply chain. Lawyers have made the comparison to credit card companies flagging suspicious purchases. When a small town of 500 orders hundreds of thousands of painkillers, this should be a red flag, but distributors either wittingly or unwittingly failed to address cases like this.
What is the Goal?
Despite multiple settlements being reached, lawyers and policymakers are unsatisfied with what the companies have paid out so far. Hundreds of millions is a drop in the bucket for these companies, such as Purdue Pharma which paid $630 million in damages but made upwards of $31 billion on OxyContin since its introduction on the market in the 1990’s. Claims against these companies are demanding adequate compensation for the economic damage brought by the scourge of addiction. One 2016 study estimated the financial burden of prescription opioid abuse to be $78.5 billion in 2013 due to health care costs, addiction treatment, money spent fighting drug-related crime, and other factors.
The hope is that plaintiffs can reach some settlement similar to the Master Settlement Agreement reached against Big Tobacco in 1998. This agreement forced the largest tobacco companies to pay tens of billions in annual payments as well as significant changes to the sale and marketing of tobacco products. This type of payout could help restrict the flood of opioid drugs while providing money to help states pay for adequate treatment to treat addiction.
There are multiple barriers to the lawsuits reaching this kind of settlement. There are too many layers and culpable parties involved to place the blame on a single entity. There are the doctors who overprescribe these medications, the distributors who oversupplied the pills, state regulators who didn’t pass prescription drug monitoring laws, the Food and Drug Administration which approved opioid painkillers, and manufacturers themselves who downplayed the dangerous, addictive properties.
What Settlements Have Been Paid?
Several companies have reached settlements, but when looking at the greater picture of the economic burden, lives lost, and continued opioid prescription rates, there is still a ways to go before we have reached any kind of adequate reparations.
- Costco Wholesale - $11.75 million
- McKesson Corp. - $150 million
- Cardinal Health Inc. - $60 million
- Purdue Pharma - $24 million
- Insys Therapeutics - $150 million
Ultimately, the ongoing lawsuits show a growing commitment from lawmakers to combat an epidemic that has clearly devastated communities across the nation. Hopefully, a major settlement agreement comparable to that against Big Tobacco will be reached before the opioid problem grows too difficult to control.
Matthew Boyle is the Chief Operating Officer of Landmark Recovery, a growing chain of drug and alcohol rehab centers in Oklahoma and Kentucky. Matthew graduated from Duke University in 2011 Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree and has worked in the healthcare industry ever since, creating a holistic treatment model that supports patients in the pursuit of achieving lifelong sobriety.