W.Va. AG’s office files lawsuits against pharmaceutical giants

MARTINSBURG — The West Virginia Attorney General’s office filed lawsuits against two pharmaceutical behemoths on Friday in an effort to fight against the ongoing opioid epidemic currently affecting the Mountain State.

The lawsuits are targeting both Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceuticals. West Virginia State Attorney Patrick Morrisey said the suits, filed in Boone County Circuit Court, are part of his “holistic approach” to combating the illicit use of painkillers.

“The lawsuit alleges that these companies misrepresented the value of these products for consumers, and they also downplayed the risk of addiction,” said Morrisey, who also alleged both companies helped fuel the opioid epidemic through deceptive marketing practices. “That’s unacceptable, and that’s one of the reasons we filed the lawsuits today.”

The suits aim to curb specific behaviors from the companies, to gain compensation for past actions and to deter other companies from carrying out similar practices. Morrisey, who assumed office in 2013, said this is just the latest salvo against every entity involved in the epidemic.

“This builds on our long history of trying to enforce accountability within the pharmaceutical supply channel,” said Morrisey. “We’ve already reached settlements of $84 million with wholesalers. We have a pending lawsuit against Purdue Pharma. We have now lawsuits against J&J and Teva, and we have more coming. We are convinced every entity that bears some responsibility in the pharmaceutical supply channel for the opioid epidemic should step up and do its part…We try to hold everyone accountable for their role in the crisis. That’s been the federal government, opioid makers, wholesalers, pharmacies, physicians, and regardless of where they’re from.”

Big pharma is only one piece of the opioid puzzle, Morrisey said.

“The government bears some responsibility as well; that’s why we sued the (Drug Enforcement Administration) last year,” Morrisey said. “We helped force them to rewrite the national drug quota system.”

The DEA isn’t the only group in the government Morrisey said he believes had a hand in the epidemic. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid also played a part, he noted.

“CMS was incentivizing the additional use of pain pills for a period of time,” Morrisey said.

Despite the complexity of the crisis, some of the work done by the Attorney General’s office is beginning to bear fruit, Morrisey said.

“Pain pill prescribing is down 51% since 2013 in West Virginia,” he said. “That’s due in part to a lot of the work that we’re doing, that U.S. attorneys are doing and others are doing. But our litigation against the DEA certainly helped a lot. Our best practices and all the education we’re doing – it’s a team effort in West Virginia.”

Even with the success Morrisey has seen thus far, he still said there is more work to be done.

“Our opioid overdose death rate is higher than any other state in the nation,” he said. “We have to make sure we bring that down. Now the pain pill numbers are starting to come down, that’s a big plus, but now we need to start seeing the death rate come down, but that’s a longer-term and broader issue because that involves both the illicit products and the legal pain pills.”

While the Attorney General said he’s hopeful these latest suits will help hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for past violations of the law, he said he’s also aware that to solve the crisis, multiple entities will need to join forces to approach it from all angels.

“You can’t sue your way out of this crisis,” he said. “This has to be a shared effort and a holistic approach going after supply, demand and pushing education. And that’s what we’ve tried to do. We know our efforts are making a difference, but it’s a big fight.”

But litigation has it’s place in the battle. Morrisey said suits like the ones brought against Teva and Johnson & Johnson can deter other pharmaceutical manufacturers from acting in bad faith. It can also generate revenue, which can then be plugged back into other anti-opioid programs.

These programs include things like best practices guides about “when it’s appropriate to prescribe opioids versus non-opioid alternatives,” and red flag systems which can alert pharmacies when a patient is “doctor shopping or pharmacy shopping.”

“We’re certainly not involved in the practice of medicine,” Morrisey said. “That’s left to the physicians. But there are basic systems that we’ve been able to help advance that I think are beginning to reduce some of the numbers. The reality is these are very powerful, addictive products, and we want to make sure people know that just because they’re legal products that there needs to be a lot of education and these products only need to be used when they’re medically necessary… At the same time I want to emphasize that if there is a patient that truly needs the product, they need to be able to get it.”