Kent County takes aim at ‘Big Pharma’

 

DOVER — Kent County Levy Court commissioners agreed to bring a lawsuit against the pharmaceutical industry, alleging it has played a major role in the current opioid epidemic.

The decision to retain legal representation was made in a 5-1 vote at the county’s Tuesday meeting.

It was noted during the meeting that Kent County first responders were dispatched to almost 700 overdose incidents last year.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 115 Americans die from opioids every day.

Commissioners retained Delaware law firm Parkowski Guerke & Swayze P.A. and Marc J. Bern & Partners, a New York-based fi rm that has been involved in previous opioid-related suits. The litigation will be brought at no cost to the county unless a settlement in the case is reached or the lawsuit is won.

Dover City Council announced its plan to do the same earlier in February — retaining the same legal team. Kent County and Dover join the state in the national trend of municipalities, counties and states bringing suits against large pharmaceutical companies.

The amount of claimants in the country is growing rapidly, noted James Nutter, an attorney with Parkowski Guerke & Swayze P.A. He said his firm has plans to talk to several more local municipalities and file the lawsuit on their behalf in the coming months.

“We have several more presentations to make to other municipalities over the next week,” he said. “We’re willing to work with any local governments that are interested. It seems like every single day there is a new local government or state in the country filing a suit or announcing that they’ve retained counsel.”

Mr. Nutter claimed the suit is important to help combat the ongoing “opioid crisis.”

“There’s an opioid epidemic that’s really reached a crisis point,” he said. “We believe that it’s a man-made one. Aggressive marketing has flooded the state with highly addictive drugs under a false pretense that the risk was very low.”

Although optimistic about the chances of the claimants, Mr. Nutter said the lawsuit has value regardless.

“Even if there’s no financial recovery, we believe this litigation has value because it’s already changing drug manufacturer practice, insurance coverage policies and pharmacy practice,” he said.

“Just this month Purdue Pharma, the maker of Oxycontin, has announced that it will no longer directly market to doctors. The insurer Highmark also just announced this month that it would not fill a prescription for anything more than a seven day supply for new, first-time using patients.

“That’s significant. When you give someone a 30-day supply when they only really need seven pills, you raise the risk for diversion or misuse.”

Some disagree.

Sixth District commissioner Glen Howell, the only no-vote on the motion Tuesday night, said the lawsuit isn’t properly focused. He believes greater emphasis should be placed on the medical community and “personal responsibility.”

“The pharmaceutical industry produced these drugs and distributed them, but there they sit until something happens — a doctor has to give a prescription,” he said. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t think my doctor wants to see me get addicted to anything.

“I cannot, for the life of me, understand how professional physicians could induce this addiction the way so many have. The medical community needs to be examined. These companies are producing drugs according to demand. Recipients trust their doctors and expect proper care, but this is out of hand.”

Mr. Howell also believes that individuals need to be held accountable for their actions.

“The reason why there is a demand for legal and illegal drugs is because of individuals,” he said. “Very little emphasis is being put on personal responsibility and I think that’s where the problem we should hit head on is. This lawsuit is like suing breweries for DUIs. There is a lot more to this picture.”

State lawsuit

Attorney General Matt Denn announced the state’s plan in mid-January. The attorney general’s complaint alleges that some of the nation’s largest manufacturers, distributors,and retailers of prescription opioid drugs have failed to meet their legal obligations and have fueled an opioid addiction epidemic that is devastating individuals, families and communities across Delaware.

“Opioid manufacturers misrepresented the addictive nature of their products,” Mr. Denn insisted in a statement. “They, along with national opioid distributors and national pharmacies, knew that they were shipping quantities of opioids around the country so enormous that they could not possibly all be for legitimate medical purposes, but they failed to take basic steps to ensure that those drugs were going only to legitimate patients.”

The manufacturer defendants named in the state’s lawsuit are Purdue Pharma and Endo Pharmaceuticals. The distributor defendants named in the lawsuit are McKesson, Cardinal Health, Amerisource Bergen, Anda Pharmaceuticals, and H.D. Smith. The retailer defendants named in the lawsuit are CVS and Walgreens. Other defendants may be named in the future.

“The filing of this suit is an important step in what will likely be complex and time-intensive litigation against sophisticated national corporations,” Mr. Denn said. “But these defendants must be held accountable for the damage that they have caused to our state and its citizens.”

The lawsuit was filed in Delaware Superior Court’s Complex Commercial Litigation Division.

The Healthcare Distribution Alliance, the national trade association representing distributors, including Amerisource Bergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson claims holding distributors liable isn’t logical.

“The misuse and abuse of prescription opioids is a complex public health challenge that requires a collaborative and systemic response that engages all stakeholders,” said John Parker, the trade association’s senior vice president.

“Given our role, the idea that distributors are responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and is regulated. Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation.”

The trade association noted that distributors are logistics experts tasked with delivering medicine, rather than manufacturing, prescribing or dispense it.

Further, they say, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is responsible for setting the annual production of controlled substances in the market, approving and regulating the entities allowed to prescribe and handle opioids and sharing data with entities in the supply chain regarding potential cases of diversion.

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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