Commission delays opioid suit decision until Jan. 4

By ED HOWELL, Daily Mountain Eagle
Posted 12/21/17

After a lengthy presentation by an attorney Monday, the Walker County Commission decided to wait until the Thursday, Jan. 4, commission meeting to decide whether to join a class action lawsuit against opioid manufacturers.

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Commission delays opioid suit decision until Jan. 4

Posted

After a lengthy presentation by an attorney Monday, the Walker County Commission decided to wait until the Thursday, Jan. 4, commission meeting to decide whether to join a class action lawsuit against opioid manufacturers.

The meeting, which was delayed from Jan. 1 due to the holiday season, will start at 9:30 a.m.

Commissioners are looking at joining a lawsuit that is being joined by a number of municipalities and counties across the nation and the state. Hamilton voted to join the lawsuit on Monday night, and cities in the county, such as Dora and Sumiton, have joined the suit.

Birmingham attorney Jeff Friedman of Friedman, Dazzio, Zulanas and Bowling, who is helping spearhead the suit, spoke during a 30-minute presentation to the commission about the suit on Monday, with District 4 Commissioner Steven Aderholt asking a number of questions. The commission decided to delay until Jan. 4, although Friedman said the commission cannot delay past January.

A copy of the suit was released at the meeting and given to commissioners.

Friedman told the commission that currently six counties and 20 cities in the state are involved, with a dozen public hospitals likely to be represented in time.

“We ask Walker County not remain on the sidelines anymore, to get in this case with Colbert County, Franklin County and all the other counties in this part of the state, and seek reimbursement for all time — the law enforcement time, jail time, healthcare time,” he said.

The county would not be out of pocket for any more funds and updates would come through County Attorney Eddie Jackson and his partner Jim Brakefield, who are involved in the suit. On the copy of the suit, the two lawyers’ names listed as attorneys for the plaintiffs are Friedman and Russellville attorney Jeffrey L. Bowling of Bedford, Rogers and Bowling.

Accountants would come up with a number for actual damages, he said.

“You can get money back into this county that is desperately needed to help do things very important and look after the welfare of the people,” he said.

Among the defendants are Purdue Pharma L.P. of Montgomery, Purdue Frederick Co., Inc., of Montgomery, TEVA Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc., of Mountain Brook, Cephalon, Inc., of Mountain Brook, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., of Montgomery, Janssen Pharmaceutica, Inc., of Montgomery, Actavis Pharma of Mountain Brook, McKesson Corp. of Montgomery, Cardinal Health, Inc., of Montgomery, Amerisourcebergen Drug Corp. of Montgomery and Insys Therapeutics, Inc. of Montgomery. All have been fined by the federal government concerning opioids, Friedman said.

According to the suit, opioids include brand names such as OxyContin and Percocet, as well as generics like oxycodone and hydrocodone, and can be highly addictive and dangerous, and are only intended for short-term use — within 90 days — in treating pain.

However, the suit says the companies, in order to increase profits, created a false sense of safety in the minds of medical professionals and patients that would allow for longer use, using marketing campaigns that started in the late 1990s. It said the National Institutes of Health said the marketing was a major cause of the problem. The Food and Drug Administration in 2013 issued warnings about long-term use.

In 2012 alone, opioids generated $8 billion in revenue for drug companies — and 2.1 million Americans suffered that year from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers. A total of 78 Americans died every day from opioid overdoses, the suit said.

Friedman pointed to reports recently from “60 Minutes” on CBS, including one Sunday night, detailing how congressional action and actions within the DEA hurt efforts to go after the drug companies in the opioid crisis.

He said the crisis especially hits rural counties hard, and has hit most counties in the state, including Walker County. Many urban counties in the state have also filed suit.

“This is a national matter. It deals with a national crisis,” he said, noting that many suits in the nation are being consolidated to within a single court in Cleveland, Ohio. As a result, the case cannot be brought locally. He compared the magnitude of the case with the asbestos and tobacco health litigations, as well as the suits over the BP oil spill.

“This is not a matter about a local pill mill or a rogue doctor,” Friedman said. “We have been misled for 20 years to believe the opioid problem is a result of some bad doctor or some careless person filling prescriptions. This is a problem that has to do with manufacturers and distributors on a nationwide basis, failing to uphold their statutory and legal responsibilities to effectively maintain control of who were getting these pills and how they were getting them, and turning a blind eye to it in the name of profits.” 

He said the U.S. has 4 percent of the world’s population but consumes more than 80 percent of the world’s opioid painkillers. About 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone is consumed by Americans.

Friedman said McKesson Corporation, the nation’s fifth largest company with annual revenue of $200 billion, was featured on “60 Minutes.” U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents said they were betrayed by the U.S. Justice Department by failing to put pressure on the drug companies profiting off the opioid crisis. The major reason for the company’s profits involves opioid sales.

In 2007, the DEA and the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) decided to start issuing fines to drug companies for failing to have controls on distribution, resulting in millions in fines for several companies. McKesson paying fines, including one for $35 million. All the companies continue to show the same conduct, despite repeatedly paying fines, Friedman said.

Friedman said “60 Minutes” reported Sunday the FDA and DEA wanted to charge McKesson a $1 billion fine — the company’s fourth — for repeated violations. The company hired former Justice Department officials as lawyers and argued the fine down to $150 million, with the added provision their distribution center licenses would not be revoked.

He said self-policing mechanisms have also been abused in the nation, and opioids is a gateway drug that leads to drugs like heroin, crime in general and the public funding healthcare treatment for addicts.

Aderholt, who is president and owner of Central Alabama Urgent Care in Dora and, according to LinkedIn, has been in project management and consulting for Glover Drugs for the past 11 years, said he “came into the pharmacy world back in the mid-’90s and I actually saw where this thing began to escalate.” He said opioid-related deaths were flat until about 2000, when long-acting drugs, such as OxyContin, came more into play.

“When OxyContin came onto the market, and we realized the monster that it was, we created another one called methadone,” he said. Fentanyl has also pushed heroin into epidemic proportions as well.

At the same time, Aderholt worried the suit would allow officials to “use the true bad parts of the opioid manufacturing and sales and we’re going to demonize and cast a broad net onto all opioids. It is a little disconnected to me,” he said.

Friedman said the suit is not trying to outlaw painkillers or prevent short-term use. However, he said more opioid-related deaths are recorded than deaths caused by traffic accidents.

District 1 Commissioner Keith Davis said both of the “60 Minutes” reports were worth watching, saying some companies in distributing drugs are “breaking the law,” with the law rewritten by Congress to assist them. He said companies are supposed to red flag unusually large shipments they discover going to pharmacies and self-report. “They are not doing that,” he said, saying litigation is sometimes needed to make companies abide by what they are supposed to.

“If you follow the story and you pay attention to what is going on here, there is a blatant abuse of these distributors distributing the amount of pills. Just per capita, to one pharmacy in Kentucky was mind-blowing of what they were sending there,” he said. “I don’t know any other way to get their attention and get the laws to change or to get the companies to self-regulate themselves.”

Friedman said unless the commission gets in quickly, it will not have a seat at the table. He noted he would take any suggestions from the commission and try to work them in. He said the lawsuit over time will take years to litigate. Aderholt said if the commission wanted to vote that day, he would abstain. He said he preferred to table the motion so that he could gather more information, saying the litigation could be a “slippery slope” and that he wanted to make the right decision, even if he is in the minority. A motion from Davis to table until Jan. 4 was passed unanimously.

McKesson said in a statement that the accusations against them in the “60 Minutes” report were unsubstantiated and denied criminal behavior or intent. It said it was investing millions of dollars to improve its monitoring of controlled substances and was working to improve dialogue with the DEA and to warn pharmacists as they are filling prescriptions for patients at risk for abuse. It said more response to the report could be found at www.McKesson.com/FightingOpioidAbuse.