McKee confident municipalities will gain in opioid suit

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Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee is confident that the more than 25 municipalities that have joined “hundreds” of municipalities across the country in a lawsuit against the pharmaceutical companies and distributors of opioids will receive payments, either as the result of a settlement or a judgment.

“Oh, yeah, they’re talking,” McKee said Wednesday when asked if there is any progress to report on the suit brought in January. “There’s no guarantee of a settlement,” he said, adding, “The fact of the matter is there’s going to be some settlement or judgment.”

McKee said manufacturers and distributors have a responsibility of tracking drug use trends and knew the impact of opioids.

“They’ve known for years that addiction levels are significantly higher than they said,” he said.

McKee said he was astounded to learn from Rhode Island attorney Eva Mancuso, who is coordinating the Rhode Island effort, that 70 out of 100 prescriptions written in the state are for opioids.

McKee has met with leaders from municipalities participating in the lawsuit. He said this is not a class action suit, and should there be a settlement or judgment any funds would not go to the state, as was the case with the tobacco settlement, or divided between select municipalities, as was the case with Google. Rather, he believes, the money would be going to the municipalities based on population and other factors.

Not all of McKee’s efforts in the fight against addiction are being directed in procuring resources for municipalities. He said more than 30 municipal leaders have already agreed to attend a meeting on March 28 where those working to address the opiod epidemic, including groups like the Boys and Girls Clubs that have made this an objective, will outline what they are doing. He said the lawsuit wouldn’t be discussed at that meeting.

The lawsuit has generated positive responses from municipal leaders who see firsthand what is happening in their communities.

“It’s going to be a national lawsuit in which Rhode Island will participate, and it files a lawsuit against the drug companies for the opioid overdoses,” said Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena. “Being a person who has done CPR on my own brother who I found with a drug and alcohol overdose, this is something that is important to me. Our youth and our citizenship is being destroyed by this epidemic, and I believe this is an epidemic.”

In a release issued after McKee announced the lawsuit, Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian outlined his motivation for joining the suit.

“In the last three years alone, 80 residents in my community lost their lives to overdoses. That’s 80 of our friends, neighbors and co-workers. It’s heartbreaking and it’s unacceptable,” he said. “As mayor, it’s my job to fight for the safety of every citizen.”

Avedisian also said through a release that he had created a city committee to discuss what could be done with any proceeds potentially to be won and distributed to the plaintiff communities.

“I have created a five-member committee chaired by Police Chief Colonel Stephen McCartney and my Chief of Staff Raymond Studley, the retired Lt. Colonel of the Rhode Island State Police; Captain Joseph Hopkins of the Warwick Police Department; Councilwoman Donna Travis, who has been a long-time leader of our Substance Abuse Task Force; and Patricia Seltzer, our community wellness nurse,” Avedisian said. “This diverse group of people brings knowledge from a variety of backgrounds, all of which have directly dealt with this crisis. I am confident that any funding we are able to obtain will be used wisely to help treatment and prevention of opioid misuse.”

McKee alleges that the manufacturing companies pushed highly addictive, dangerous opioids, falsely representing to doctors that patients would only rarely succumb to drug addiction, while the distributors breached their legal duties to monitor, detect, investigate, refuse and report suspicious orders of prescription opioids.

Because prescription opioids are a highly addictive substance, in 1970 Congress designed a system to control the volume of opioid pills being distributed in this country. It let only a select few wholesalers gain the right to deliver opioids. In exchange, those companies agreed to halt suspicious orders and control against the diversion of dangerous drugs to illegitimate uses. But in recent years they failed to do that, the suit states, and today communities across Rhode Island are paying the price.

McKee and municipal leaders are working with a consortium of law firms to “hold pharmaceutical wholesale distributors accountable for failing to do what they were charged with doing under the federal Controlled Substances Act” – and monitor, identify and report suspicious activity in the size and frequency of opioid shipments to pharmacies and hospitals.

“As lieutenant governor and a former municipal leader, I am determined to do everything in my power to stop this epidemic from further destroying the lives of the people of Rhode Island. Ending this crisis is going to take a major collective effort that involves municipal, state and federal leaders, lawmakers, doctors, law enforcement and health officials coming together to find workable solutions,” McKee said. “But until we address the source of this epidemic and force drug makers and distributors to follow the law, our cities and towns will continue to face an uphill battle.”

Rhode Islanders continue to bear the burden of the cost of the epidemic, as the costs of treatment for addiction, education and law enforcement have continued to rise. In 2016, 336 Rhode Islanders died from drug overdose deaths, the majority of which involved opioids.

“As municipal leaders, our job is to look out for the safety and wellbeing of the people who call our communities home,” said North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi. “While we bear the burden of this epidemic, multi-billion dollar companies are turning a profit and ignoring the crisis they caused. On behalf of all North Providence residents, I will do everything I can to hold these companies accountable.”

The wholesale drug distributors listed as defendants in the lawsuit include McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen Drug. The manufacturers listed as defendants in the lawsuit include Perdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and its subsidiary Cephalon, Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Endo Health Solutions, Allergan, Activis and Watson Pharmaceuticals.

Municipal leaders have hired expert law firms, experienced in holding the powerful pharmaceutical industry accountable. Those firms include the local law firm of Hamel, Waxler, Allen & Collins; Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty & Proctor; Baron & Budd; Greene Ketchum Bailey Farrell & Tweel; Hill, Peterson, Carper, Bee & Deitzler; and McHugh Fuller Law Group.

Rhode Island joins a list of other states, including New York, California, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia filing suits against such manufacturers and distributors. Over 200 of these suits – referred to as multidistrict litigation – have been filed in these states thus far, according to U.S. News.

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