Saturday, March 24, 2018

Rural health clinics claim drug makers and distributors 'created and engineered' opioid epidemic, seek national class action

"Two rural Kentucky health clinics are trying to open a new front in the legal battle against drug companies that allegedly used improper tactics to fan an epidemic of addiction to powerful painkillers called opioids," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

“These pharmaceutical companies aggressively advertised to and persuaded practitioners to prescribe highly addictive, dangerous opioids, and turned patients into drug addicts or dependents for their own corporate profit,” charges the complaint by Family Practice Clinic of Booneville Inc., and Family Health Care Clinic PSC of Richmond. It says the firms "created and engineered" the epidemic.

"Their lawsuit lists more than 20 defendant pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors," Estep reports. "Some of the companies are subsidiaries of others in the complaint. Three attorneys with the Lexington firm of McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie & Kirkland, along with a firm from Georgia, filed the lawsuit for the clinics."

Estep notes, "Lawsuits seeking damages from drug companies for conduct that allegedly worsened the drug crisis in Kentucky and the nation are not new. There are hundreds of such cases pending around the country." But this one is the first by rural health clinics, according to David J. Guarnieri, one of the Lexington attorneys.

The suit seeks unspecified damages and asks that it be made a class action on behalf of more than 4,100 rural health clinics, including 745 in Appalachian areas of Kentucky (which has 191), Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio and Tennessee. “They’re on the front lines dealing with the opioid crisis,” Guarnieri said.

"The lawsuit argues that drug makers used false and misleading claims to push their products, such as down-playing the risk of addiction; claiming that it is easy to manage opioid dependence and withdrawal; and denying risks from using higher doses of the drugs," Estep reports. "It also alleges the companies targeted vulnerable patient populations, including people served by rural health clinics in Appalachia. There is a high prevalence of “societal risk factors which contribute to an increased and widespread abuse of opioids” in the region, the lawsuit says, including lower income; lower educational attainment; depression; a higher portion of jobs prone to injuries; and poor health status."

The suit claims distributors of the drugs failed "to stop suspiciously large shipments of painkillers and by not reporting red flags about possible diversion of prescription pills to the government as required," Estep reports. It says addiction to opioids "drives up costs for rural health clinics, not just for providing treatment but for added needs such as regulatory compliance and security; lost employee productivity; and having to kick out patients for abusing or diverting prescribed drugs."

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