The Daily Globe - Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

Iron County joins lawsuit against opioid companies

 

January 19, 2018



By RICHARD JENKINS

rjenkins@yourdailyglobe.com

MILWAUKEE, Wis. — While the Iron County Board of Supervisors voted in December to join other counties in suing several pharmaceutical companies for their alleged roles in fueling the nationwide opioid crisis, it wasn’t until the lawsuit was actually filed earlier this month that many details in the case were spelled out.

Iron County is one of 12 Wisconsin counties listed as plaintiffs in the suit, which was filed Jan. 5 in federal court in Milwaukee; with Brown, Crawford, Juneau, Kewaunee, Outagamie, Ozaukee, Pepin, Portage, Racine, Richland and Winnebago counties also suing the drug companies.

The lawsuit targets a number of companies and their subsidiaries which make opioids — including Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson and its Janssen Pharmaceutical subsidiaries and Endo Health Solutions — as well as several doctors accused of contributing to the overprescription of opioids.

“The lawsuits filed today on behalf of these additional 12 counties in Wisconsin build upon the important work of addressing the opioid crisis in the state. It is great to see so many Wisconsin counties working together to address this epidemic,” said Erin Dickinson, of Crueger Dickinson LLC, in a news release when the lawsuit was filed. “Together, with Simmons Hanly Conroy, we will work to hold the defendants responsible for the devastating effects their actions have produced across the state and throughout the nation.”

Crueger Dickinson, along with Simmons Hanly Conroy LLC, is representing the counties in the case.

Iron County is also being represented by the law firm of von Briesen & Roper, according to the county board’s resolution.

The firms are working on a contingency basis, according to the resolution, meaning they only make money if the county receives “financial benefit” from the suit.

The effort to sue the companies is largely being spearheaded by the Wisconsin Counties Association — according to information at the December county board meeting — and with the Jan. 5 lawsuit, 60 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties had joined the effort.

The 79-page suit specifies damages the counties have sustained as a result of opioid abuse, which the Federal Drug Administration recognized as a “public health crisis” in March 2016, according to the suit.

“In 2015, the majority of opioid-related deaths in Wisconsin involved prescription opioids. Indeed, the number of Wisconsin citizens who die as a result of drug overdoses now exceeds the number of those who die from motor vehicle crashes, as well as suicide, breast cancer, colon cancer, firearms, influenza and HIV,” the lawsuit reads.

According to the suit, 258 of the state’s 1,824 opiate overdoses during the period from 2013 to 2015 occurred in the 12 counties listed as plaintiffs, including one in Iron County. In addition to the human cost to the issue, the lawsuit alleges there was a financial burden imposed on the counties as they had to devote resources to treating residents impacted by the drugs.

“Apart from … the toll on human life, the crisis has financially strained the services these counties provide to their residents and employees. Human services, social services, court services, law enforcement services, the office of the coroner/medical examiner and health services — including hospital, emergency and ambulatory services — have all been severely impacted by the crisis,” the lawsuit reads.

Iron County alone spent $844,741 on placements in 2016, many of which were related to drug and alcohol issues. The county board voted in July to take out a loan to cover future placements, which will allow the county to pass the cost onto taxpayers, as it could no longer absorb the burden through its general fund.

The lawsuit also details alleged actions of the drug companies, which the suit argues is grounds for them being responsible for the increased costs of treating the opioid problem.

The defendants are alleged to have used a mix of bad science and advertising tactics to make opioids a treatment for long-term pain, whereas they had previously only been used for short-term relief.

“Defendants did not set out to change the medical community’s view, however through legitimate scientific research, because scientific research would not have supported the conclusion defendants desired. … Rather, to accomplish their goal of blockbuster profits and dramatically increased sales, defendants turned to the marketing and PR world to instead create a misperception in the medical community,” the suit reads.

Several of the companies named in the lawsuit denied allegations of impropriety, while pledging to continue to work toward fixing the crisis and continuing to provide care to those in need.

“We are deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis, and are dedicated to being part of the solution. As a company grounded in science, we must balance patient access to FDA-approved medicines, while working collaboratively to solve this public health challenge,” John Puskar, director of public affairs for Purdue Pharma L.P., told the Daily Globe. “...We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense.”

Puskar said Purdue, which produces OxyContin and other opioids, has taken steps to develop medication with “abuse-deterrent properties” and works with law enforcement to provide access to naloxone, used to counteract opioid overdoses.

Purdue wasn’t the only company named in the suit to deny wrongdoing.

“Responsibly used opioid-based pain medicines give doctors and patients important choices to help manage the debilitating effects of chronic pain. At the same time, we recognize opioid abuse and addiction is a serious public health issue that must be addressed,” said Jessica Castles Smith, a senior manager for global pharmaceuticals communications with Janssen Global Services. “We believe the allegations in the lawsuits against our company are both legally and factually unfounded. Janssen has acted in the best interests of patients and physicians with regard to its opioid pain medicines, which are FDA-approved and carry FDA-mandated warnings about possible risks on every product label.”

Stephen Mock, a senior vice-president with Endo Pharmaceuticals, told the Daily Globe the company was “voluntarily ceasing opioid promotion and eliminating its entire product salesforce.”

“It is Endo’s policy not to comment on current litigation. That said, we deny the allegations contained in this lawsuit and intend to vigorously defend the company,” Mock said as part of the company’s statement to the Daily Globe.

The suit doesn’t specify what monetary amount is being sought from the companies, but asks the counties be compensated for their damages, attorney fees, punitive damages, “a declaratory judgement requiring defendants to abate the public nuisance” and any other relief the court feels is appropriate.

While over 80 percent of Wisconsin’s counties have joined in the legal effort, it appears at least one of Iron County’s neighbors — Vilas County — won’t be taking part.

The Vilas County Board’s executive and legislative committee voted 5-1 against sending a resolution to join the legal effort to the full county board Jan. 8.

Board members cited a number of reasons for their reluctance to join the lawsuit, according to a report in the Lakeland Times, including not enough information on the suit, a fear of unforeseen costs down the road, a fear that retirees unknowingly invested in the drug companies could be adversely impacted and questions as to why larger counties such as Milwaukee and Dane counties aren’t participating.

 
 

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