Ohio sues Big Pharma firms over harms of opioid drug abuse epidemic

ohio-300x185With more than 4,000 overdose deaths last year alone and a fifth of its residents having received prescriptions for powerful painkillers, the state of Ohio has sued five Big Pharma companies, accusing them of mispresenting opioid drugs’ risks and fueling the medications’ epidemic abuse.

Ohio joins Mississippi in suing makers of increasingly lethal drugs like OxyContin and Percocet, whose addictive nature was hidden and downplayed by Big Pharma, critics say. The abuse of prescription opioids has fueled heroin use, with 33,000 Americans dying last year alone due to overdoses, federal and state health and law enforcement officials have said.

Fatal drug overdoses now exceed gun- or vehicle-deaths and they are matching the terrible tolls exacted at the height of the HIV-AIDS pandemic. Heartland America, and particularly white men, have been hard hit by the opioid drug crisis, with Ohio, Kentucky, New Hampshire and West Virginia recording the nation’s highest numbers of overdose deaths.

That has prompted state and local officials, frustrated by what they term too slow and too limited federal action against drug abuse, to seek legal remedies against Big Pharma in the civil justice system. Besides Ohio and Mississippi, the city of Chicago, and two California and four New York counties all have sued opioid drug makers. West Virginia already has wrung key information and some financial redress from companies it pursued with lawsuits.

The five defendants in the states’ action include:  Purdue Pharma LP, Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc unit, a unit of Endo International Plc, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd’s Cephalon unit and Allergan Plc.

Excellent investigations by news organizations like the Los Angeles Times already have shown how, for example, Purdue was relentless in hyping OxyContin and its purported benefits while downplaying the drug’s harms. Big Pharma middlemen, meantime, have inundated parts of the country with prescription pills, while offering clueless responses when confronted with the harms that have resulted.

The Obama Administration took deserved criticism for failing to attack the opioid epidemic as it grew. But it did seek to ramp up the battle with major funding increases, including through public health programs and under the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

President Trump has been in office for six or so months but his administration already is under fire for its inaction on painkiller and heroin abuse, especially for seeking to slash the federal programs targeting drug woes. Critics have noted that GOP proposals to repeal and replace Obamacare with the American Health Care Act, aka Trumpcare, will slash public health money and programs in a way that will gut efforts to combat drug abuse. Congress, of course, remains stuck on Trumpcare, a version of which has squeaked out of the House but is under deep deliberation in the Senate, where some say it’s in trouble.

In my practice, I see not only the harms inflicted on patients when they seek medical services, I witness  the extreme damage they suffer due to dangerous drugs. It is unconscionable that profit-hungry drug makers keep hyping and flooding already economically ravaged exurban and rural areas with risky painkillers, increasing the areas’ miseries. Doctors and hospitals need to step up more to slash opioid abuses, as do lawmakers and regulators. The politicians from areas wracked by heroin and prescription painkillers — and national figures like the president who benefit from support from these areas —should hang their heads in shame if they chatter about their opioid-fighting intentions but then don’t provide the money and resources to do so.

As for Big Pharma, well, it’s hard to imagine how anyone in the industry even understands shame. There have been new findings, for example, that Mylan overcharged Uncle Sam even more than had been thought for its allergic reaction-response EpiPens—the growing estimate now is the excess cost is $1.27 billion. The company earlier had reached an overcharge settlement of $465 million. Of course, the New York Times reports that the industry’s notional defense for soaring costs and pricing problems: blame everyone else. The paper quotes one analyst as saying that Big Pharma executives and lobbyists are running around the nation’s capital looking like the Three Stooges in one of their famed routines:  “Everyone is … finger-pointing [at someone else], when in fact there is a lot of blame to go around.”

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