OxyContin is one of the opioid medications adding to issues in Texas counties.EXPAND
OxyContin is one of the opioid medications adding to issues in Texas counties.
George Frey/Reuters/Newscom

Federal Judge Seeks Settlement in Opioid Lawsuits Against Big Pharma

President Donald Trump spent about a minute highlighting the casualties and the heroes of the opioid epidemic in his first State of the Union address in late January.

“My administration is committed to fighting the drug epidemic and helping get treatment for those in need, for those who have been so terribly hurt,” he said. “The struggle will be long and it will be difficult — but, as Americans always do, in the end, we will succeed, we will prevail.”

The struggle to hold someone accountable has been going on a long time. In a 2003 story titled “The DEA’s War on Pain Doctors,” the Village Voice reported that some in the medical community called it “a government jihad” or “state-sponsored terrorism” with law enforcement agents dressed in SWAT-style gear storming clinics and hauling off doctors in handcuffs as if they were crack dealers peddling powder on the streets.

Last year, county governments across the country tried a new tactic. They filed federal lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies in an attempt to recuperate some of the costs associated with the opioid epidemic. In Texas, Dallas-based litigation firm Simon Greenstone Panatier & Bartlett filed a lawsuit on behalf of Upshur County, about 120 miles east of Dallas. Soon, other East Texas counties, including Bowie and Titus, also filed federal lawsuits to hold drug manufacturers responsible.

“The goal is to try to recoup the cost of the opioid epidemic," Upshur County Judge Dean Fowler told the Longview News-Journal. “It costs our taxpayers to take care of people who are addicted to opioids, and the cost to the public is very high.”

Now, a federal judge in Ohio wants drugmakers, lawmakers and law enforcement agencies to forge a deal to settle the more than 250 state, county and municipal lawsuits. He plans to host a summit to hear from all parties. The first half of the meeting will be dedicated to finding information, including plans to keep painkillers away from abusers from the Federal Drug Administration and Drug Enforcement Acency. The second half will be dedicated to the settlement. 

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Daniel Polster summoned parties to the suits into his Cleveland courtroom to talk about his proposal for a settlement. "The problem is urgent, life threatening and ongoing," he told Bloomberg News. "I took this step because I thought it would be the most effective path."

It’s a path with no easy solution.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that opioids sold to pharmacies, hospitals and doctors’ offices quadrupled from 1999 to 2014. The federal lawsuits accuse Big Pharma companies like Purdue Pharma Inc. of using direct marketing and unbranded advertising “to spread false and deceptive statements about the risks and benefits of long-term opioid use.”

The lawsuits claim that this nefarious practice changed doctors’ views of opioids. The plaintiffs say Big Pharma found “key opinion leaders” within the medical community to support the message that opioids were OK for long-term use. “[They] convinced doctors that instead of being addictive and unsafe for long-term use in most circumstances, opioids were required in the compassionate treatment of chronic pain,” Dallas attorney Jeffrey B. Simon claimed in the Upshur County lawsuit.

Many chronic pain sufferers disagree and call the government crackdown “a war against pain patients.” After the Observer wrote about the Texas lawsuits, dozens of people from around the world shared their nightmares of trying to live normal lives when the government prevents pain doctors from treating their patients.

“It’s just like living in hell,” Scott Garrett, a chronic pain sufferer, told the Observer in early January. “It’s just hell. That’s exactly what it is.”

Like Garrett, some users experience chronic pain because of accidents or work-related injuries. For others, the pain stems from interstitial cystitis (a painful bladder syndrome), multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and trigeminal neuralgia, which causes excruciating pain to sufferers' faces and is known as “the suicide disease.” A few had family members who also suffered from chronic pain.

“In my journey, I have seen many doctors and nurses scared to write a script for what they know is the only thing that will help,” wrote one chronic pain sufferer from Colorado. “I have seen many end their lives because they saw no hope of help. My own brother-in-law ended his life because of this, and I have considered this option myself.”

Nearly all point out that this response to the opioid epidemic is putting legitimate patients at risk, physically, emotionally and mentally. “We are facing a future without hope. ..." one person wrote. "We did not ask for this disease or seek opioids for recreational purposes. Please help us, we are desperate for proper pain control.”

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