Big Pharma has run into a rare rough summer — and that could be positive news for all the rest of us regular folks. Just how? Consider:
- One of the world’s largest makers of prescription medications — which also is one of several pharma titans implicated in the record-breaking opioid abuse and drug overdose crisis, has agreed to settle for up to $4.5 billion with more than 2,500 local governments, states and tribes.
- In a separate but related deal, generic drug maker Allergan has agreed to settle its lawsuits with those same parties for $2.37 billion.
- Congress — fingers crossed — is reportedly nearing agreement on passing a pathbreaking economic package that would create federal price controls of a kind on drugs, letting Medicare negotiate a select number of medication prices. Lawmakers also would bar drug companies from raising prices faster than inflation and cap Medicare recipients’ out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs at $2,000 a year.
Besides these developments — ferociously opposed by Big Pharma and likely causing consternation in the drug industry — Congress is on the brink of helping tens of millions of folks who get their medical coverage under Obamacare avoid big rate increases. And the nation soon could see ambitious efforts to deal with a significant, undeniable threat to the planet from weather extremes and climate change.
These changes are far from a sure thing, with Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate needing to stay rock-solid in their favor against fierce GOP opposition. Will it all happen before Congress takes its August adjournment?
The Teva-Allergan opioids settlements
Teva is an Israeli company and likely unfamiliar to most U.S. consumers. But as the New York Times reported:
“Teva … and its affiliates produced far more prescription opioids during the peak years of the crisis than marquee-name opioid manufacturers such as Johnson & Johnson did. Its production of both generic and branded painkillers dwarfed the output of Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, the medication most immediately associated with setting off an avalanche of overdoses and deaths.”
The Washington Post reported this, quoting Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and his statement on powerful prescription painkillers, the nation’s inundation with them, and the unacceptable debilitation, addiction, and death that came in their wake for far too many patients and communities:
“Teva downplayed the risk of addiction when it marketed its opioids and overstated potential benefits, deceiving doctors and patients. Today’s settlement ensures Teva will pay for its irresponsible actions, with funds going directly to communities in Pennsylvania most impacted by the opioid epidemic.”
Teva, the Washington Post reported. “has denied accusations raised during the litigation, saying it legally produced generics and marketed its branded fentanyl-based lozenges Actiq and Fentora.”
The newspaper said the proposed settlement will directly benefit hard-hit communities:
“If the deal is finalized, the company would pay $3 billion in cash and $1.2 billion in donated Narcan, the overdose-reversing drug, over 13 years. Approximately $100 million would be distributed to the tribes. The sum includes $650 million that the company already agreed to pay when settling cases with Texas, Florida, West Virginia, and others. The governments that sign on to the deal can opt to receive the overdose-fighting medication rather than cash, Teva said.”
As for the Allergan settlement, which will be cash and not include products, it is related to the Teva deal, the New York Times reported:
“The deals are linked largely because, in 2016, Teva bought Allergan’s generic drug portfolio, including its substantial opioid business. Teva made this week’s settlement contingent in part on Allergan’s reaching its own deal for opioid liability.”
The newspaper also noted this:
“If a significant majority of states and communities sign on, the combined deal, when finalized, could be worth $6.6 billion, lawyers familiar with the negotiations said. That is higher than a nationwide settlement struck with Johnson & Johnson or an offer from Purdue Pharma, opioid manufacturers with much higher public profiles.”
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them and their loved ones by dangerous drugs, especially prescribed products like addictive painkillers from Big Pharma.
The Teva and Allergan settlements, if finalized, will be yet another in a wave of lawsuits seeking to hold Big Pharma accountable for the lethal opioid crisis. As the Washington Post reported of the prospective Teva agreement::
“The deal also follows several others with similar terms. The three biggest wholesalers — AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson — agreed to a $21 billion nationwide settlement alongside a $5 billion deal with drugmaker Johnson & Johnson. OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma is pushing forward with a $10 billion bankruptcy plan to resolve litigation and become a public benefit company. Mallinckrodt, the leading opioid maker, made a $1.6 billion nationwide deal in bankruptcy court. The Teva deal is a first in a significant respect: Other agreements the drug companies reached with states and communities typically have not included Native American tribes. The tribes usually reached their deals after the states. At the same time, the increase in drug overdose deaths has disproportionately affected Indigenous people in the United States. (The toll rose 39% among Native Americans compared with an increase of 22% among Whites in 2020, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ….”
The opioid crisis, just to remind, was fostered for years by Big Pharma, doctors, nurses, hospitals, insurers, and others in the U.S. health care system. It has entered its latest and notably bad stage with easily, cheaply made, exceedingly powerful synthetic painkillers like fentanyl flooding the country.
More than 108,000 Americans died last year due to drug overdoses, most of them opioids or synthetic versions of them or illegal, hard narcotics, experts have reported, based on still finalizing data. Those were record-shattering numbers, and they came atop the stark reality that the opioid abuse and drug overdose crisis has killed an estimated 500,000 Americans over a decade.
Civil justice while lawmaking is paralyzed
While critics have assailed attorneys general and trial lawyers for pursuing opioid cases in civil courts, accusing them of greed because they will take home fees for the labors in the complex matters, the conniptions that lawmakers continue to exhibit as they deal with the administration’s health care and other proposals undercuts arguments about reasonable action by lawmakers against the drug menace.
The same conservative Republicans who battle federal public health efforts and their funding and who demonize research-based efforts to deal with drug abuse — caricaturing “harm reduction” approaches as Uncle Sam doling out free drugs to junkies — will vote down laws to help those in need, just to spite their political opponents. The GOP provided the latest evidence of this when senators held to a party-line vote in stalling money to assist U.S. veterans experiencing severe health conditions after exposure to military pits where toxic substances were disposed of by incineration.
With Democrats pressing ahead with their plans for Medicare drug price negotiations, an extension of more generous Obamacare subsidies, climate change actions, and changes in taxes, the GOP pique submarined the veteran “burn pit” assistance plan — which Republicans just weeks ago approved with Democrats in overwhelming fashion.
GOP senators took days of blistering criticism, notably from comedian Jon Stewart, for delaying the veterans’ health measure, which the president championed from his coronavirus quarantine with his promised pizza for Capitol Hill protesters delivered by the Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary himself. The brow-beaten Republicans relented and the Senate approval for the bill occurred in overwhelming bipartisan fashion.
Public opinion polls show significant support for the climate, health, and other programs in the scaled-back Democratic economic package, once known as Build Back Better and now dubbed as an inflation-fighting initiative. But the midterms loom.
We’ll see if lawmakers can get past political posturing and determine what best serves their increasingly angry, frustrated, and restive constituents. The details will matter if the Democrats’ economic plan emerges from Congress, as optimists hope it soon will.
We have much work to do to battle the opioid crisis, protect the environment, and safeguard our health and well-being. Voters must ask themselves why we have a giant, sprawling federal government — and notably an expensive lawmaking body like Congress — if our elected representatives seem to want to come to the nation’s capital to posture, post on social media, and can vote only to reject proposals without putting up their own alternatives. What taxpayers want to foot the bill for a noisy, do-nothing Congress?