I-Team: Durham County latest to sue Big Pharma over opioid crisis

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Durham County is joining a growing list of local governments taking major pharmaceutical companies to federal court, seeking millions - if not billions - of dollars in relief.

Court documents reviewed by the ABC11 I-Team show Durham County suing more than 20 defendants representing some of largest drug manufacturers and wholesale distributors in the world.

Specifically, the complaint accuses the companies of aggressively marketing what litigants call "highly addictive, dangerous opioids," and "falsely representing to doctors" that people who use the drugs "would only rarely succumb to drug addiction."

The lawsuit further explains that treating those addictions -- and responding to the crimes that emanate from them -- has "exacted a financial burden" on the county, which "continues to suffer directly" from the burden.

"COLLATERAL CONSEQUENCES"

The latest data available shows more than 2,000 opioid overdose related deaths in 2016. In a report obtained by the I-Team, the North Carolina Injury and Violence Prevention Branch lists "commonly prescribed opioid medications" and "other synthetic narcotics" as the leading cause of drug overdose deaths, which have skyrocketed since 1999.

"It's a lifelong medical and health issue and it's expensive," Wendy Jacobs, Presiding Commissioner of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, explains to ABC11. "We know that it's very expensive to get into treatment and stay in treatment that's one of the big challenges that we have."

According to Jacobs, the consequences of the opioid epidemic is also extremely costly to county taxpayers, both in actual dollars spent and in productivity lost.

"The impact to Durham County just from, I think very conservative, medical impacts and loss of work, was $40 million. $40 million that just in one year."

The monetary cost, Jacobs adds, is found in county health facilities, among first responders and county jails, among other places. They also lead to what she calls "collateral consequences" on families, friends and colleagues.

"There are people who miss work, there's an impact on children," Jacobs laments. "When we are having to put resources towards issues like medication and substance misuse it is taking away funding from other places," such as parks and recreation.

MILLION AND BILLION DOLLAR SETTLEMENTS

In what could be seen as a groundbreaking precedent, the attorney general of Oklahoma recently announced a $270 million settlement with Purdue Pharmaceuticals, the maker of OxyContin.

"The addiction crisis facing our state and nation is a clear and present danger, but we're doing something about it today," Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said last spring when the settlement was finalized.

The deal earmarked $200 million for the Oklahoma State University Center for Wellness and Recovery, a treatment and research center, that would boost the center to a national level. Purdue will also pay $60 million toward the state's legal fees. An additional $12.5 million will go towards measures fighting the opioid epidemic in cities and counties in Oklahoma.

Teva Pharmaceuticals, another defendant, settled with Oklahoma for $85 million.

"The resources and terms of the agreement will help abate the ongoing crisis the state is facing, help prevent doctors and Oklahomans from being misled by marketing materials and provides law enforcement with another investigative tool to help us shut down pill mills and illicit enterprises," the attorney general said in a statement.

If Oklahoma is any indicator, Durham County could also stand to win relief, but the U.S. government itself just finalized a record $1.4 billion deal with Reckitt Benckiser, the maker of Suboxone.

"Opioid withdrawal is difficult, painful, and sometimes dangerous; people struggling to overcome addiction face challenges that can often seem insurmountable," the Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt for the Department of Justice's Civil Division said in a statement. "Drug manufacturers marketing products to help opioid addicts are expected to do so honestly and responsibly."

Britain-based Reckitt Benckiser issued a statement denying any wrongdoing.

"While RB acted lawfully at all times and expressly denies all allegations that it has engaged in any wrongful conduct, after careful consideration, the board of RB determined that the agreement is in the best interests of the company and its shareholders," the statement said. The company had previously set aside $400 million to settle claims related to its former subsidiary's lawsuits.

HOW OTHER BIG PHARMA COMPANIES RESPOND

The ABC11 I-Team has reached out to all 24 defendants listed in multiple lawsuits. Many of the other companies listed were adamant in their rejection of the complaint's allegations.

John Parker, Senior VP of Communications for the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, said in an email, "The misuse and abuse of prescription opioids is a complex public health challenge that requires a collaborative and systemic response that engages all stakeholders. 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."

The HDA is a national trade association representing whole distributors, including defendants McKesson, Cardinal Health and Amerisource Bergen.

"Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation," Parker concludes, inviting people to visit a special webpage about the opioid epidemic.

McKesson, likewise, individually asserted that sentiment, telling ABC11:

"McKesson delivers life-saving medicines to millions of Americans each day. As a company, we are deeply concerned by the impact the opioid epidemic is having on families and communities across our nation. We are committed to engaging with all who share our dedication to acting with urgency and working together to end this national crisis.

"We maintain -- and continuously enhance-- strong programs designed to detect and prevent opioid diversion within the pharmaceutical supply chain. For many years, sales of controlled substances ordered by pharmacies in the U.S. have been reported to the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) for its internal database."

"We are working with others to advance a series of company initiatives focused on helping to address the opioid epidemic, offer thoughtful public policy recommendations - including the Prescription Safety-Alert System (RxSAS) technology proposal - and to support innovative programs and partnerships that we believe can have a meaningful impact on this challenging issue. We've also contributed $100 million to the Foundation for Opioid Response Efforts (FORE), a nonprofit dedicated to combatting the opioid crisis in the U.S."

A spokesman for AmerisourceBergen also sent a statement:

"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 our part 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 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 North Carolina, on ways to combat opioid abuse."

Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson, sent these remarks to ABC11:

"Our actions in the marketing and promotion of these important prescription pain medications were appropriate and responsible. The FDA-approved labels for these prescription pain medications provide clear information about their risks and benefits. The allegations made against our company are baseless and unsubstantiated. In fact, since 2008, our opioid medications have accounted for less than one percent of the U.S. market for this class of medications (including generics)."

"Opioid abuse and addiction are serious public health issues. We are committed to being part of the ongoing dialogue and to doing our part to find ways to address this crisis."

In addition to Durham County, lawsuits against drug companies have been filed by Alamance County, Alexander County, Alleghany County, Anson County, Ashe County, Beaufort County, Brunswick County, Buncombe County, Burke County, Caldwell County, Camden County, Carteret County, Caswell County, Catawba County, Cherokee County, Chowan County, Columbus County, Craven County, Cumberland County, Currituck County, Dare County, Davie County, Duplin County, Forsyth County, Franklin County, Gaston County, Greene County, Halifax County, Haywood County, Jones County, Lenoir County, Lincoln County, Madison County, Martin County, McDowell County, Moore County, New Hanover County, Onslow County, Orange County, Pamlico County, Pasquotank County, Person County, Pitt County, Polk County, Randolph County, Richmond County, Rockingham County, Rowan County, Rutherford County, Stokes County, Surry County, Warren County, Tyrrell County, Vance County, Washington County, Watauga County, Wayne County, Wilkes County, Yadkin County and Yancey County.

The following municipalities have also filed suits: City of Fayetteville, City of Henderson, City of Hickory, City of Jacksonville, City of Wilmington and City of Winston-Salem.

These lawsuits -- and the approximately 1,500 from across the country -- have been transferred to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio under Judge Dan Polster, who will be hearing this multi-district litigation.
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