Alaska sues OxyContin maker over deceptive practices
At a press conference Tuesday morning, Gov. Bill Walker announced Alaska is joining 10 other states and several other cities or counties in filing a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma.
The pharmaceutical company manufactures OxyContin. According to Alaska Attorney General, Jahna Lindemuth, 80 percent of those addicted to heroin in Alaska started with prescription opioids such as OxyContin.
A lawsuit filed by Lindemuth, Monday alleges Purdue Pharma used deceptive practices in violation of state consumer protection laws, which include promoting the use of OxyContin for long-term chronic pain when there was little evidence to support it.
"We believe, based on our investigation, that Purdue overstated the benefits of their drug and understated the risks," explained Lindemuth. "Additionally we believe that Purdue exhibited a pattern of marketing practices to practitioners to prescribe their drug, including the use of seemingly neutral medical professionals and organizations who promoted their drug to their colleagues without disclosing their relationship to Purdue Pharmaceutical."
In a written statement to KTVA Tuesday, Purdue Pharma said:
“We are deeply troubled by the opioid crisis and we are dedicated to being part of the solution. As a company grounded in science, we must balance patient access to FDA-approved medicines, while working collaboratively to solve this public health challenge. Although our products account for approximately 2% of the total opioid prescriptions, as a company, we’ve distributed the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain, developed three of the first four FDA-approved opioid medications with abuse-deterrent properties and partner with law enforcement to ensure access to naloxone. We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense.”
The state's chief medical officer, Dr. Jay Butler, called the move the next step in an approach to addressing the opioid epidemic.
"What I hear again and again from my colleagues is that they thought they were doing the right thing, " Butler said, referring to doctors who prescribed OxyContin. "And some of what their practices have been based on is information that was provided to them which really was misrepresenting what was in the science."
According to Reuters, Louisiana, West Virginia, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, New Hampshire and South Carolina have filed similar suits.
Cynthia Franklin, an assistant attorney general with the state Department of Law's Consumer Protection Division, said the suit isn't being jointly filed with any other jurisdiction. A statement on the case said each of Alaska's top three prescribers of OxyContin billed the state for more than $1 million a year in claims from 2009 to 2017, but Franklin said those prescribers were identified numerically through Medicaid data without being named.
"This is where we are right now with identification of this company and this drug as having contributed to our crisis," Franklin said. "This lawsuit isn't really about pill mills; this lawsuit is more about providers being deceived by the manufacturers."
Franklin said the state doesn't have the staff to sue Purdue in-house since the Consumer Protection Division has shrunk amid budget cuts from five attorneys and two staff to two attorneys. The case is instead being handled on a contingency basis by national litigation firm Motley Rice, Franklin said, in which the state pays nothing up front but the company will receive a flat 20 percent of any funds recovered from Purdue.
Franklin defended that rate Tuesday, saying Motley Rice had experience in pharmaceutical litigation and its bid was tied with another law firm's as the lowest the state had received.
"In a typical plaintiff’s personal injury lawsuit, an automobile crash or an injury, those fees run to 30, 40 percent so it’s pretty low," Franklin said.
Alaska is seeking compensatory damages and penalties as outlined under the Alaska Unfair Trade Practice Act.
"We want to put manufacturers and distributors on notice that we’re paying attention, and that we are going to pursue claims when they step over the line and market using false and misleading practices," Lindemuth said, adding that the state is currently investigating other companies and may pursue additional claims against other manufacturers and distributors.