After rejecting a half-billion-dollar deal, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson brought the state’s case against the nation’s three largest drug distributors on Monday, saying they must be held accountable for their role in the opioid epidemic. country.
The Democrat handed part of the opening statement to King County Superior Court, calling the case perhaps the most significant public health lawsuit his agency had ever filed.
“These companies knew what would happen if they did not fulfill their duties,” Ferguson told Judge Michael Ramsey Scott. “We know they were aware of the harms of their conduct because in private correspondence, company executives mocked people suffering from the painful effects of opioid addiction. … They showed callous contempt for communities and people who they bear the impact of their greed. “
But Ferguson’s legal strategy isn’t without risk, as evidenced by the loss of three California counties in a similar case this month – and an Oklahoma Supreme Court decision overturning a $ 465 million ruling against the manufacturer. of Johnson & Johnson drugs -.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter Wilson issued an interim ruling on November 1 that the counties, other than the city of Oakland, had not proven that drug companies were using deceptive marketing to increase unnecessary opioid prescriptions. and create public nuisance. The Oklahoma ruling said a lower court misinterpreted the state law on public disturbance.
In an email, Ferguson pointed out that Washington’s relevant laws differ and called the cases “apples and oranges”.
Allegations of public nuisance are at the center of some 3,000 lawsuits filed by state and local governments against drug manufacturers, distribution companies and pharmacies. Washington is the first in a state against drug distribution companies to be tried. Ferguson denounces public nuisance and violation of state consumer protection law.
“There is always uncertainty when taking a case to court,” he said. “However, we are confident in the strength of our case.”
The Attorney General’s Office South McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc., and AmerisourceBergen Corp. In 2019, they made billions from the opioid epidemic by sending huge quantities of prescription painkillers into the state even when they knew or should have known those drugs would probably found their way to drug dealers and addicted people.
Ferguson is seeking a “transformative” payment of tens of billions of dollars from companies to help repair the damage in the Washington state epidemic, which includes more than 8,000 deaths from 2006 to 2017 and unspeakable devastation to families. The state wants $ 38 billion to pay for treatment services, criminal justice costs, public education campaigns and other programs over a 15-year period, plus billions in additional damages.
The process should take about three months.
In July, Ferguson rejected a transaction offer of $ 527.5 million over 18 years as “woefully insufficient.” That deal would have provided about $ 30 million annually for the split of Washington and its 320 cities and counties. Considering inflation over the 18-year payment period, the real deal value was just $ 303 million, Ferguson said.
Drug companies say they cannot be blamed for the outbreak; they simply provided opioids that had been prescribed by doctors. It wasn’t their job to guess prescriptions or interfere in the doctor-patient relationship, they argued in a trial brief filed this month.
In addition, they argued, Washington state itself played a major role in the outbreak. In the 1990s, concerned that people with chronic pain were undertreated, lawmakers passed the Intractable Pain Act, which made prescribing opioids easier.
“The rise in opioid prescribing by well-meaning physicians, supported by the state’s bona fide efforts to spare its residents from pain, in turn has led to an increase in opioid distributions,” the companies wrote. “Defendants have played no role in changing the standard of care, nor do wholesale distributors have the experience, obligation or ability to guess the good faith medical decisions made by doctors to prescribe opioids.”
However, the state argues, companies had a duty to maintain drug diversion controls. Instead, they shipped so much to Washington that it was obvious it was fueling the addiction: Opioid sales in Washington increased by more than 500% between 1997 and 2011.
In 2011, more than 112 million daily doses of all prescription opioids were administered in the state, enough for a 16-day supply for each resident, says the attorney general. In 2015, eight of Washington’s 39 counties had more prescriptions than residents.
The prescription drug epidemic has declined with further attention and scrutiny, and prescription opioid deaths have dropped in half since 2010. But since then, heroin and fentanyl deaths have soared – heroin-related mortality is more that quintupled in Washington from 2010 to 2018 and fentanyl-related mortality more than doubled from 2016 to 2018.
“This occurred as a predictable result of user addiction, particularly for those who could no longer get or afford prescription opioids,” the state wrote in its trial report. “These deaths and other heroin and fentanyl-related harms are therefore an integral and tragic part of the opioid epidemic and public disturbance.”
The federal government says nearly half a million Americans have died from opiate abuse since 2001.
Other trials on opioids rooted in the public harassment law are underway before the juries of a federal court in Cleveland and a state court in New York. A ruling is expected soon in a trial before a judge in West Virginia.
Johnson & Johnson also faces a separate lawsuit from Washington state that is expected to go to trial next year.
Johnson & Johnson and the three distribution companies are in the final stages of negotiating a $ 26 billion settlement that covers thousands of government cases, though it could take months to get final approval.