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State sues opioid makers, family behind Oxycontin

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    A flask of Purdue Pharma's OxyContin, Jan. 25, 2012. The narcotic is at the center of a lawsuit filed by the state of New York against several pharmaceutical companies, NYS Attorney General Letitia James announced Thursday morning. (Stuart Isett/The New York Times)
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    The headquarters of Purdue Pharma in Stamford, Conn., May 23, 2018. NYS Attorney General Letitia James on Thursday announced the expansion of a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, and other opioid manufacturers and distributors. (George Etheredge/The New York Times)
March 28, 2019 10:59 am Updated: March 28, 2019 02:38 pm

The state is suing several major pharmaceutical companies for their distribution of opioids and their involvement in the nation’s widespread opioid epidemic, officials announced Thursday morning.

New York State Attorney General Letitia James unveiled the expansion of an existing lawsuit against Purdue Pharma — the manufacturer of Oxycontin — to include several other distributors of the narcotic.

“What is groundbreaking about this lawsuit are the allegations against the distributors of opioid drugs,” James said.

The suit also names Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson, Mallinckrodt, Endo Health Solutions, Teva Pharmaceuticals and Allergan Finance, along with distributors McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health, and Rochester Drug Cooperative, in addition to the Sackler family, who owns Purdue Pharma.

“Some of the biggest distributors of opioids in New York and in the nation,” James said of the companies named in the suit. “They failed to exercise their most basic duty to detect and report the diversion of opioids because of poorly designed, poorly resourced and poorly executed monitoring programs.”

Recovering opioid user Justin St. George took to the podium to share his struggles with the drug and how he recovered. St. George works as a social worker helping other users.

“I have been saying for years — I couldn’t believe how readily available pharmaceutical drugs were,” he said.

Dr. Joshua Lee from New York University’s School of Medicine spoke about the dangers of opioid misuse.

Prescription opioids were responsible for one quarter of all overdose deaths in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lee said.

“While pain and suffering are a universal human experience, the United States remains a global outlier in terms of the amounts and rates of prescription use — a market that steadily expanded beginning in the 1990s,” Lee said. “No other developed country or economy comes close in terms of the amounts of prescription opioids sitting in America’s medicine cabinets, and no other country has seen as much harm and preventable death as a result.”

James claimed the companies failed to properly monitor and report suspicious orders of the narcotics and continued to fill the orders. The attorney general pointed to the billionaire Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma.

“This lawsuit contains detailed allegations about the Sackler family and their attempts to hide the vast fortunes they collected at the expense of actual lives,” James said. “In an attempt to shield these fortunes from families whose loved ones have been killed by their product, we allege that the family has recently transferred funds from Purdue to personal trusts so that they are potentially outside of the reach of law enforcement and our efforts to seek restitution or penalties.”

The lawsuit alleges detailed false-claim allegations for opioids paid for under state health programs, such as Medicaid, but were inappropriately prescribed and obtained.

“The gross misconduct exhibited by these defendants enabled countless New Yorkers to obtain prescriptions that were not medically necessary — prescriptions that New York state taxpayers footed the bill for because they were paid under state health programs,” James said.

The companies’ behavior was willful misconduct and gross negligence, James said, in an attempt to sell more of their product.

In the state, the distribution of opioids is subject to the New York Controlled Substance Act.

“[The act requires companies to] implement effective measures to detect suspicious orders, prevent the diversion of controlled substances into unauthorized hands and report suspicious orders from pharmacies to the state Department of Health,” James said.

The defendants had insufficient systems in place to detect, prevent and report suspicious activity, she said, adding the attorney general’s office has been investigating the case for several years.

“Simply put, they put profit over patients,” James said.