BREAKING: Harris County To Sue Pharmaceutical Companies For 'Opioid Epidemic' – Houston Public Media

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Lawyers for Harris County say pharmaceutical companies should bare the cost, of health care and judicial ramifications, resulting from opioid abuse.

Being addicted to painkillers, or opioids, is a serious health issue in Houston and nationwide.

In October, President Trump even declared the opioid crisis a “national public health emergency, under federal law.” It’s the first presidential administration to do so.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioid prescribing has fueled the epidemic. It said nearly half of all U.S. opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription. And a recent government report said the US economy lost over 500 billion dollars from opioid abuse, in 2015.

But who, if anyone, should help pay for the losses?

Harris County said the drug companies should pay; just like tobacco companies were made to pay for smoking-related health care and prevention.

“It’s exactly pharmaceutical’s tobacco moment,” said lawyer Tommy Fibich. He’s one of the several lawyers representing Harris County against a slew of pharmaceutical companies.

In an e-mailed press release, the Harris County Attorney’s office said:

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan will file suit Wednesday against drug manufacturers and distributors, doctors and a pharmacist for their roles in promoting the opioid epidemic that has cost Harris County residents their health and even their lives and cost taxpayers millions to pay for healthcare and law enforcement.

“These are the most addictive drugs on our planet. They knew that. They promoted them in a way that caused people to be addicted to them,” said Fibich. “The problem is the companies that manufactured opioids went against every statue in law designed to protect the consumer.”

“I would never say the pharmaceutical companies dropped the ball,” lawyer Tommy Fibich said. “The pharmaceutical companies blew up the ball, and kicked it out to the public, for it to explode.”

Fibich said the regulations in place should have worked, but they weren’t enforced.

“The manufacturers and distributors, primarily, managed to disregard them. They did it with impunity. And everybody was making so much money that they were willing to do it and take the risk,” said Fibich.

It’s not the first lawsuit of its kind. Lawsuits of this nature have been popping up across the country. Upshur County, in East Texas, filed a similar lawsuit in September. 

Healthcare Distribution Alliance (HDA) is a national trade association that represents wholesale distributors, some of whom are involved in the lawsuit.

In a statement, HDA spokesman John Parker said:

“As distributors, we understand the tragic impact the opioid epidemic has on communities across the country. We are deeply engaged in the issue and are taking our own steps to be part of the solution – but we aren’t willing to be scapegoats. 

Distributors are logistics companies that arrange for the safe and secure storage, transport, and delivery of medicines from manufacturers to pharmacies, hospitals, long-term care facilities, and others based on prescriptions from licensed physicians. We don’t make medicines, market medicines, prescribe medicines, or dispense them to consumers. 

Given our role, the idea that distributors are solely responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and how it is regulated.

We are ready to have a serious conversation about solving a complex problem and are eager to work with political leaders and all stakeholders in finding forward-looking solutions.” 

AmerisourceBergen, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., are also involved in the suit. They have provided News 88.7 with statements:

  • Janssen Pharmaceuticals: 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. We believe the allegations in 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. According to independent surveillance data, Janssen opioid pain medicines consistently have some of the lowest rates of abuse among these medications, and since 2008 the volume of Janssen opioid products always has amounted to less than one percent of the total prescriptions written per year for opioid medications, including generics.  Addressing opioid abuse will require collaboration among many stakeholders and we will continue to work with federal, state and local officials to support solutions.- William Foster, spokesperson, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
  • AmerisourceBergen: AmerisourceBergen and other wholesale drug distributors are responsible for getting FDA-approved drugs from pharmaceutical manufacturers to DEA-registered pharmacies, based on prescriptions written by licensed doctors and health care providers. Our role in doing so is quite widespread across different therapies, with the distribution of opioid-based products constituting less than two percent of our sales. We are dedicated to doing everything within our power as a distributor to mitigate the diversion of these drugs without interfering with clinical decisions made by doctors, who interact directly with patients and decide what treatments are most appropriate for their care. Beyond our reporting and immediate halting of tens of thousands of potentially suspicious orders, we refuse service to customers we deem as a diversion risk and provide daily reports to the DEA that detail the quantity, type, and the receiving pharmacy of every single order of these products that we distribute. We are committed to collaborating with all stakeholders, including in Texas, on ways to combat opioid abuse

  • Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd.: Teva is committed to the appropriate use of opioid medicines, and we recognize the critical public health issues impacting communities across the U.S. as a result of illegal drug use as well as the misuse and abuse of opioids that are available legally by prescription. To that end, we take a multi-faceted approach to this complex issue;  we work to educate communities and healthcare providers on appropriate medicine use and prescribing, we comply closely with all relevant federal and state regulations regarding these medicines, and, through our R&D pipeline, we are developing non-opioid treatments that have the potential to bring relief to patients in chronic pain. Teva offers extensive resources for prescribers, patients and pharmacists regarding the responsible pain management and prevention of prescription drug abuse. Teva also collaborates closely with other stakeholders, including providers and prescribers, regulators, public health officials and patient advocates, to understand how to prevent prescription drug abuse without sacrificing patients’ needed access to pain medicine.

Marc Fleming, Assistant Professor of Pharmaceutical Health Outcomes and Policy at the University of Houston College of Pharmacy, said while there is an issue in Harris County, there’s responsibility and blame all around.

“From a societal stand point, to the individual patients, to unscrupulous doctors that enable these patients with unethical prescribing of these medications,” said Fleming.

Marc Fleming, Assistant Professor of Pharmaceutical Health Outcomes and Policy at the University of Houston College of Pharmacy, said responsibility and blame reaches further than only the pharmaceutical companies.

Fleming also said there are many factors contributing to opioid abuse; one being lyrics to popular songs referencing prescription medication abuse.

“These medications are commonly talked about in some of these lyrics, and so forth.” said Fleming. “One of my concerns is that we have a generation of kids that has grown up very accustomed to taking medications. So there’s nothing taboo, for this generation, about taking a medication.”

Fleming said if damages are awarded to Harris County, it would be best spent in rehabilitation, and other alternatives to help pain management; like yoga and physical therapy.

“Does your insurance cover that? Typically not,” said Fleming. “How are you going to pay for that? These are things that are not being addressed.”

Lawyers say a trial date could come in the next year.

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