Woonsocket may join lawsuit against drug companies in opioid epidemic

Woonsocket may join lawsuit against drug companies in opioid epidemic

City has highest overdose rate in the state

WOONSOCKET – More people die of drug overdoses in this city than in any other Rhode Island community.

Woonsocket officials are considering joining a multi-district lawsuit on behalf of Rhode Island municipalities against five pharmaceutical drug manufacturers and three wholesale drug distributors for their alleged role in the ongoing opioid epidemic.

The litigation, filed in federal district court in March, accuses drug manufacturers and distributors of targeting vulnerable patients and communities as opioid consumers and downplaying the risks of opioid addiction. As of Tuesday morning, April 10, 29 Rhode Island cities and towns had joined the lawsuit, which is occurring simultaneously with similar suits around the country. Rhode Island Attorney Gen. Peter Kilmartin is also in the planning stages of a similar lawsuit on behalf of the state.

Eva Mancuso, one of the lawyers on a team of local and national attorneys working on the case, presented information about the suit at Monday’s City Council meeting.

“We know, and we have known since 1970, that opioids were addictive. And we have done nothing about it,” she said.

Mancuso explained that as multi-district litigation, the suit allows cities and towns to file as individual entities, totaling the damages to their communities for potential compensation. Damages can include obvious costs, such as personnel time off for opioid addiction and supplies of the anti-overdose drug Narcan, but can also consider larger costs to the community, including the impact of family addictions and the absentee rate of students with parents addicted to opioids.

According to data compiled by the Governor’s Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force and published at preventoverdoseri.org, Woonsocket has the highest overdose rate of any municipality in Rhode Island, with 72 overdose deaths occurring between 2014 and June 2017. Mancuso emphasized the issue affects all socioeconomic levels due to many people’s introduction to opioids as a prescribed painkiller.

“There’s so many layers to unfold. It’s not just the actual drugs themselves, it’s not just the addictions themselves,” she said. “These are a lot of middle class people that got addicted, turned to crime, a lot of it white collar crime.”

According to Mancuso, the suit targets drug manufacturers and distributors for their failure to properly educate doctors and the public on the risks of addiction to prescribed opioid drugs. She compared the litigation to past efforts to hold tobacco manufacturers and defenders of asbestos and lead paint accountable for public health risks and disinformation campaigns.

“When they went out to educate the doctors on these issues, they didn’t say one in four people are going to become addicted,” she said.

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

In response to previous reporting on the lawsuit, John Parker, senior vice president of the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, the national trade association representing drug distributors, issued the following statement to The Valley Breeze:

“As distributors, we understand the tragic impact the opioid epidemic has on communities across the country. We are deeply engaged in the issue and are taking our own steps to be part of the solution – but we aren’t willing to be scapegoats,” he said.

“We don’t make medicines, market medicines, prescribe medicines or dispense them to consumers,” he continued. “Given our role, the idea that distributors are solely responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and how it is regulated.”

City councilors offered generally positive response to the invitation to join the lawsuit, with several commending the effort and expressing concern for the impact of the crisis in Woonsocket. Councilor Richard Fagnant expressed support but cautioned fellow council members against expecting a large monetary payout.

“Let’s not think that we’re in for a big windfall, because that’s not the way these lawsuits happen,” he said.

Mancuso told councilors there is no cost to join the lawsuit except the time and effort of city personnel as they work with researchers to determine the cost to the city of the opioid crisis. The legal team will receive 25 percent of any damages paid to the city following the suit and up to 25 percent will be dedicated to expenses, making for a potential payout to the city of 50 percent of any damages awarded. The discovery process of the suit, she said, will take between 18 months and two years.

The City Council will vote at a future meeting on whether Woonsocket will join the suit.