The Department of Justice (DOJ) on Tuesday announced that it will back a multi-district lawsuit against several opioid distributors and manufacturers and will seek federal reimbursement for the costs it has borne from the opioid misuse epidemic.
About the lawsuit
The lawsuit, which is pending in Federal District Court in Cleveland, consolidates more than 400 lawsuits filed by U.S. cities, counties, and Native American tribes, Reuters reports. The suits accuse several opioid distributors and manufacturers of using false or deceptive marketing to promote the drugs, downplaying the drugs' risks of misuse, and fueling the opioid misuse epidemic.
The suits name as defendants pharmaceutical companies Allergan, Endo International, Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals; distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, and McKesson; and pharmacy chains, including CVS Health, Rite Aid, and Walgreens.
U.S. District Judge Dan Polster is presiding over the consolidated case, and according to Reuters, is aiming for the plaintiffs and defendants to quickly reach a global settlement. Polster held the first settlement hearing in January and is expected to hold a second hearing in March.
DOJ adds voice to the case
Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday said DOJ would file a so-called statement of interest in the lawsuit, which Reuters reports would allow DOJ to share in any final settlement agreement.
Sessions said, "The hard-working taxpayers of this country deserve to be compensated by those whose illegal activity contributed to those costs," adding, "And we will go to court to ensure that the American people receive the compensation they deserve."
According to Reuters, DOJ is not expected to participate in the settlement hearings. But Sessions on Tuesday said DOJ's Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) would provide the courts with some data on the national distribution of painkillers. According to the New York Times, Polster requested DEA provide nine years of data for lawyers to use in their settlement discussions, but lawyers representing DEA have said providing too much data could compromise ongoing investigations.
Richard Fields, a lawyer representing state attorneys general and Native American tribes in the opioid litigation, said the statement of interest likely would "help unlock this data so that we can hold manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacies accountable for flooding communities with pills."
Johnson & Johnson said the company is committed to combating the opioid misuse epidemic, but said the allegations against it "are baseless and unsubstantiated." Purdue, which recently announced plans to stop marketing OxyContin, said it was "fully engaged" in the process Polster has put in place. According to Reuters, the other manufacturers did not respond to requests for comment.
Sessions on Tuesday separately announced the creation of a new task force to "combat the opioid crisis at every level of the distribution system."
According to a release, the Prescription Interdiction and Litigation Task Force will "hold opioid manufacturers accountable for unlawful practices" and ensure drug manufacturers are practicing legal and truthful marketing.
Sessions said the task force also will examine lawsuits brought by state and local governments "to determine if we can be of assistance" (Benner/Hoffman, New York Times, 2/27; Roubein, The Hill, 2/27; Lynch, Reuters, 2/27; Tanfani, Los Angeles Times, 2/27; Morse, Healthcare Finance News, 2/27; DOJ task force release, 2/27).
Learn more: How to combat the opioid epidemic
Opioid misuse and abuse is one of the most pressing public health issues in the U.S., and hospitals and health systems are on the front lines. Currently, most health systems focus their opioid management efforts on select medical specialties.
This report outlines three imperatives to guide hospitals and health systems in their efforts to reduce the impact of inappropriate opioid prescribing and misuse.