SEATTLE – After rejecting a half-billion dollar deal, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Monday brought the state’s case against the nation’s three largest drug distributors to trial, saying they accountable for its role in the nation’s opioid epidemic.
Democrats delivered part of their opening statement on their own in King County Superior Court, calling the case possibly the most significant public health lawsuit his agency has ever filed.
“These companies know what happens if they don’t do their job,” Ferguson told Judge Michael Ramsey Scott. “We know that they are aware of the harmful effects of their behavior because in private correspondence, company executives mocked individuals who are suffering the painful consequences of dependence. opioids. … They have shown callous disregard for the community and those affected by their greed. “
But Ferguson’s legal strategy is not without risk, as three California counties suffered damages in a similar case this month – and the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling overturns a $465 million judgment. against drug maker Johnson & Johnson – demonstrated.
Judge Peter Wilson of the Superior Court of Orange County issued a tentative ruling on November 1 that the counties, plus the city of Oakland, failed to prove drug companies used marketing scam to increase unnecessary opioid prescriptions and cause public nuisance. Oklahoma’s ruling said a lower court misinterpreted the state’s public nuisance law.
In an email, Ferguson emphasized that relevant Washington laws were different, calling the cases “apple and orange”.
Public nuisance claims are at the heart of about 3,000 lawsuits brought by state and local governments against drug manufacturers, distribution companies and pharmacies. Washington was the first state against drug distribution companies brought to trial. Ferguson claimed to be a public nuisance and in violation of state consumer protection laws.
“There is always uncertainty when you bring a case to trial,” he said. “However, we feel confident in the strength of our case.”
The attorney general’s office sued McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc. and AmerisourceBergen Corp. in 2019, alleging they made billions of dollars from the opioid epidemic by shipping large amounts of prescription pain medications into the state even when they knew or should have known those drugs were likely to find them. access to drug dealers and addicts.
Ferguson is seeking a “variable” payment of tens of billions of dollars from companies to help repair the damage of the epidemic in Washington state, including more than 8,000 deaths between 2006 and 2017 and the devastating effects of the pandemic. Not to mention for 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 more for health care workers. additional damage.
The trial is expected to last about three months.
In July, Ferguson turned down an offer of an 18-year $527.5 million settlement because it was “unfortunately insufficient.” That deal would provide about $30 million a year to Washington and its 320 split cities and counties. Considering the inflation over the 18-year payment period, the real value of the payment is just $303 million, says Ferguson.
Drug companies say they cannot blame the epidemic; they only provide opioids that have been prescribed by a doctor. They argued in a trial summary filed this month that it was not their role to second guess prescriptions or interfere with the doctor-patient relationship.
What’s more, they argue, it was Washington state that played a big role in the outbreak. In the 1990s, concerned that people with chronic pain were getting treatment, legislators passed the Intractable Pain Act, which made it easier to prescribe opioids.
The increasing prescribing of opioids by physicians in good faith, aided by the State’s good faith efforts to save its peoples from pain, has resulted in increased opioid distribution, the companies write. up,” the companies wrote. “The defendants played no part in changing the standard of care, nor did the wholesale distributors have the expertise, obligations, or second-guessing ability to make good-faith medical decisions made by physicians. prescription opioids.”
However, the state argues, companies have a duty to maintain controls against drug diversion. Instead, they’re shipping so much to Washington that it’s clearly fueling addiction: Opium sales in Washington have grown more than 500% from 1997 to 2011.
In 2011, more than 112 million daily doses of all prescription opioids were distributed in the state — enough for a 16-day supply for everyone, the attorney general said. In 2015, eight of Washington’s 39 counties had more prescriptions than residents.
The prescription drug epidemic has increased thanks to greater care and control, and the number of deaths from prescription opioids has halved since 2010. But since then, the number of deaths from heroin and fentanyl has increased Soaring: Heroin-related mortality more than doubled in Washington from 2010 to 2018, and fentanyl-related mortality more than doubled from 2016 to 2018.
“This occurs as a foreseeable outcome of users’ addiction to the drug, especially for those who can no longer afford or afford prescription opioids,” the state wrote in the trial summary. . “These deaths and other harms related to heroin and fentanyl are therefore an integral and tragic part of the opioid epidemic and public nuisance.”
The federal government says nearly half a million Americans have died from drug abuse since 2001.
Other opioid trials stemming from public nuisance law are taking place before juries in federal court in Cleveland and state court in New York. A verdict 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 three distribution companies are in the final stages of negotiating a $26 billion settlement that includes thousands of government lawsuits, although it could take months to get approval. final agreement.