Lawsuit Accusing Big Pharma, Doctors of Colluding To Fuel Opioid Addiction Set For Trial

By Victoria Kim 08/31/16

Twenty-nine plaintiffs allege that doctors, drugmakers, and pharmacies in West Virginia kept people hooked on opioids to make big profits.

Lawsuit Accusing Big Pharma, Doctors of Colluding To Fuel Opioid Addiction Set For Trial

A group of recovering addicts who say that West Virginia doctors, pharmacies, and drug wholesalers should be held accountable for “feeding the addiction” of patients will have its day in court later this year. 

The 29 plaintiffs in the lawsuit—who are not only recovering addicts, but the family of those who overdosed on opioid pain medication—claim that pain clinics, pharmacies, and drug wholesalers dispensed large volumes of addictive prescription opiates despite knowing how addictive they are—all in the name of profit. 

These entities each played a role in the supply chain of painkiller distribution that funneled millions of prescription opiates into West Virginia, the lawsuit states. It was a “conspiracy” to keep people “hooked,” said Jim Cagle, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs.

“Follow the money. Look at the amount of pills they shipped into certain parts of our state. It was a business model,” said Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. 

The lawyers representing the defendants—local pill mill physicians and pharmacies—tried to argue that the former addicts did not have the right to sue because they themselves broke the law. “The very core of (their) alleged claims stem from their own criminal, illegal and immoral activity,” the defendants said in court documents.

Some of the plaintiffs did admit they resorted to illegal activity to obtain painkillers once they became hooked, like “doctor shopping” and purchasing opiates illegally. But last year, the West Virginia Supreme Court rejected the defendants’ argument, and the case will go to trial later this year, according to the Guardian.

“We hold that a plaintiff’s immoral or wrongful conduct does not serve as a common law bar to his or her recovery for injuries or damages incurred as a result of the tortious conduct of another,” wrote Chief Justice Margaret Workman in the majority opinion.

West Virginia has been cracking down on these so-called clinics—the state’s health department shut down 12 pain clinics out of 19 that were investigated in 2015. From what has been reported about the pain clinics/doctors named in the lawsuit, it’s pretty clear that they brazenly operated as pill mills.

According to the Guardian, doctors would write out prescriptions for opiates in increasing doses without examining “patients,” who would pay for them with cash. Then, they would fill the prescription at local pharmacies, which would also profit from dispensing large quantities of opiates.

And then there are the drug distribution companies that supply pharmacies with the drugs. “It goes all the way up the chain,” said Francis Hughes, the former chief deputy attorney general of West Virginia.

The state has sued several drug wholesalers—so far, it has reached a $6.7 million settlement with six of them, but others are fighting back. One of them is McKesson Corp, the largest supplier of drugs in the U.S., which delivered 99.5 million doses of hydrocodone and oxycodone to West Virginia pharmacies between 2007 and 2012.

This wasn’t the first time McKesson was sued. The company settled a 2008 lawsuit filed by the Drug Enforcement Administration and six other states for supplying large quantities of opiates to pharmacies, by paying $13 million in fines. At the time, the DEA said the company had a legal obligation to report suspicious patterns, but chose to ignore it.

“If a pharmacy was ordering 5,000 tablets per month, over a series of months, that’s not a big deal,” said Joe Rannazzisi of the DEA. “But one month he orders 30,000 tablets. And then the following month, he orders 60,000 tablets, and now he’s up to 100,000 tablets. Well, the wholesalers were seeing this and no one was filing suspicious orders.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr