Mobile Infirmary and other area hospitals have initiated a legal battle against some of the nation’s largest purveyors of opioid medications, accusing several powerhouse pharmaceutical companies of fueling the drug epidemic that has burdened health care providers for years.
Styled similarly to 1980s lawsuits against the tobacco industry, the case claims corporations such as Purdue Pharma, Endo Pharmaceuticals and several other manufacturers used “false, deceptive and unfair marking” to sell doctors and patients on their opioid products.
Infirmary Health is joined in the lawsuit by the Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center as well as the Monroe County Healthcare Authority and Monroe County Hospital in Alabama.
In a 134-page complaint filed in Mississippi on Nov. 30, the hospitals accuse several opioid manufacturers of aggressively pushing “highly addictive, dangerous opioids” for years while “falsely representing that patients would rarely succumb to drug addiction.”
“[They] turned patients into drug addicts for their own corporate profit,” it continues.
In addition to manufacturers, several drug distributors, including the McKesson Corp., are also named as defendants. They’re accused of failing to “monitor, detect, investigate, refuse and report suspicious orders of prescription opiates,” which the hospitals claim has aided the large-scale drug diversion that supplies the illicit market for opioids.
The hospitals are represented by Mississippi Attorney John W. “Don” Barrett, who had a hand in the aforementioned lawsuits against the tobacco industry. Several other attorneys are also involved, including the Mobile-based firm Taylor Martino.
“These hospitals and their leadership take very seriously their commitment to health care in their communities,” attorney Steve Martino told Lagniappe. “They try to keep health care efficient and safe, but the carnage of this epidemic falls on them, and many times they don’t get reimbursed.”
Martino was referring to the treatment hospitals provide for those affected by opioid abuse and addiction — many of whom are uninsured. In addition to general health care, Martino said hospitals often provide psychiatric, neonatal and detox services for patients affected by opioids.
In recent years, opioid abuse and addiction has grown into one of the most pressing concerns for health care officials at all levels of government. In October, President Donald Trump designated it a “health emergency” and in Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey and Attorney General Steve Marshall have set up independent committees to address the situation.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were 64,000 opioid-related deaths in 2016 — a 22 percent increase from the previous year. More in line with the hospitals’ complaint, though, has ben the monetary cost incurred dealing with this problem.
In November, the White House released calculations of the financial impact of the current crisis, concluding that between health care, criminal justice and lost productivity, opioid abuse and addiction cost the United States $504 billion in 2015.
While there are numerous allegations in the recent legal complaint, most deal with how pharmaceutical companies market their products. Several are accused of disseminating misleading information about the addictiveness and effectiveness of opioid painkillers and the likelihood of long-term patients developing an increased tolerance over time.
In some cases, companies named in the lawsuit are accused of spending millions to have those “misleading” claims perpetuated by patient advocacy groups, in publications and by medical professionals, all discreetly funded by the companies themselves.
Others deal with business practices for which some of the companies have already faced multi-million dollar criminal penalties for, such as the $600 million Purdue Pharma was fined in 2007 after misleading regulators, doctors and patients about the risk of its flagship drug, OxyContin, being addictive and its potential for abuse.
Martino said many of the companies that manufactured these drugs went about their business in “a devious way,” claiming they “knew there would be a health care fallout at some point, but it would be for somebody else to worry about.” He said hospitals and emergency rooms across the country have been dealing with that fallout for years.
“You’ve got the hospitals — nurses, doctors and administrators — on the ground dealing with this problem, and then you have these guys who just invented this market,” he added. “For years the medical standard was that these drugs were prescribed only for end-of-life treatment and cancer. Well, that’s not much of a market.”
To date, none of the companies has filed a legal response to the lawsuit, though a few have released media statements addressing the litigation. In an email to Lagniappe, a representative of Purdue Pharma said the company is “deeply troubled by the opioid crisis” and “vigorously denied” the allegations made in the hospitals’ legal complaint.
“As a company grounded in science, we must balance patient access to FDA-approved medicines, while working collaboratively to solve this public health challenge,” the statement reads. “Although our products account for approximately 2 percent of the total opioid prescriptions, as a company, we’ve distributed the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain, developed three of the first four FDA-approved opioid medications with abuse-deterrent properties and partner with law enforcement to ensure access to naloxone.” (Naloxone is a medication used to block the effects of opioids and prevent overdose deaths.)
While a civil lawsuit can’t force companies to change their behavior, Martino said he’s hopeful, if the hospitals’ case is successful, some might move to do so on their own. He also stressed that even though they are seeking substantial monetary damages, the hospitals bringing this case view it as “part of their obligation to provide effective and safe health care.”
“A lot of times, when the public hears about lawsuits like this, they think it’s just some big cash grab, but this is a real problem in emergency rooms,” he said. “It’s not just a money thing, either. If your kid falls out of a tree and breaks his arm, and you’re sitting in the ER waiting because they’re having to deal with someone looking for pills, that’s a problem.”
A representative of Mobile Infirmary did not respond to requests for comment on this story.