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NY Attorney General Files Suit Against Opioid Manufacturers, Distributors

Letitia James
Facebook: New York State Attorney General
New York Attorney General Letitia James announced what she called the country's most extensive lawsuit against pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors Thursday.

New York Attorney General Letitia James has filed what the Democrat calls the country’s most extensive lawsuit against pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors for their alleged role in the opioid epidemic.

The lawsuit filed by James targets six prescription opioid manufacturers, notably Purdue Pharma and its affiliates, along with distributors Cardinal Health, the Amerisource Bergen Drug Corporation, the McKesson Corporation, and the Rochester Drug Cooperative. James alleges the companies, through false marketing and negligence, contributed to the creation of the opioid epidemic in New York. 

“When I ran for attorney general, I made a commitment to New Yorkers that I would tackle the crisis," James notes. "During my campaign all across the state, I’ve held in my arms too many mothers, too many fathers, too many individuals who told me stories about how their children died, and how they died because of this epidemic that could have been prevented.”

The suit also targets the Sackler family, who own Purdue Pharma. James say the company is valued at several billion dollars. The first-term attorney general says the family purposely shifted Purdue’s opioid profits into trusts and offshore accounts to avoid recovery by law enforcement in the now several lawsuits it is facing. 

“And so for the first time our lawsuit includes fraudulent conveyance claims against Purdue and the Sackler family," James announces. 

The lawsuit also sets forth what James calls an “extensive set of facts” alleging that the distributors named failed to detect and report the diversion of opioids into “unauthorized hands.” Under the New York Controlled Substance Act, distributors are required to monitor and report “red flags” such as suspiciously high prescription orders, orders paid in cash, and orders written by illegal prescribers. But James says defendants like Cardinal Health actually incentivized sales representatives to push as much product to pharmacies as possible.

“One particular pharmacy in Suffolk County had the highest volume of opioid orders in Suffolk County," she says. "And in fact, Cardinal reported the suspicious orders to the DEA and the Department of Health. They reported an average of 85 suspicious orders per year for five years – yet, despite reporting the suspicious orders, Cardinal continued to fill the orders, some as recent as 2018.”

Cardinal Health is the leading distributor of opioids in the state, at 780 million OxyContin pills since 2010, according to the AG’s office.

The state Department of Health says the rate of opioid overdose deaths in New York almost tripled between 2010 and 2016. According to James, nine people die of an opioid overdose in the state every day. Gary Butchen is executive director of Bridge Back to Life Center, an addiction treatment center. He says the center spends more time comforting families of lost loved ones than it does treating addicts.

“We have successfully treated the scholar athlete, the stay-at-home parent, the high-level executive, the sports star, the TV personality, those who wear blue collars and those who wear white collars – and even those in the medical profession themselves that have fallen victim to prescription opioid addiction," says Butchen. 

The lawsuit says New York has spent hundreds of millions of dollars treating opioid addiction and paying for false prescriptions through its Medicaid, worker’s compensation, and employee health plans. In addition to reform, James says the suit seeks funding for addiction prevention and treatment programs, and billions of dollars in penalties.

“If you do not get into compliance with the law, we have outlined in myriad ways in this lawsuit that we will not, not allow you to continue selling controlled substances in New York," says James. "Full stop. Period.”

New York isn’t the first state to hold companies’ feet to the fire: on March 26 Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donavan filed a lawsuit against Cardinal Health and the McKesson Corporation, following a September lawsuit against Purdue Pharma. Purdue settled a similar case in Oklahoma for $270 million the same day.

Purdue says New York “is seeking to publicly vilify" the company and the Sacklers with ill-supported claims about a drug that accounts for under two percent of all opioid prescriptions. The Sackler family say they have always acted properly.

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."
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