Winchester suing Big Pharma for $67 million over drug epidemic

Posted February 15th, 2020.

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By EVAN GOODENOW The Winchester Star

WINCHESTER — A mountain of evidence has been released in the last decade supporting allegations that Big Pharma flooded the market with opioid painkillers while downplaying about how addictive they were.

Much of the evidence has come through corporate documents obtained through the discovery process in lawsuits such as the one filed by the city of Winchester on Wednesday in Winchester Circuit Court against 49 pharmaceutical companies, healthcare providers and retailers. The suit seeks $50 million in compensatory damages and $17.1 million in punitive damages.

The defendants are some of the wealthiest corporations in America. They include Walmart, pharmacy giants like CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens, pharmaceutical distributors like the McKesson Corp, and healthcare insurers like Cardinal Health and United Health Group.

The suit essentially says the companies put profits before people in creating the epidemic, which it describes as “indiscriminate and ruthless.” It accuses the companies of “unjust enrichment” through civil conspiracies, fraud and willful and wanton negligence.

“The manufacturers make the opioids and lie about their efficacy and addictive properties. The wholesalers distribute the opioids from the point of manufacture to the point of delivery to the patient,” said the suit filed by Sanford, Heisler, Sharp, The Cicala Law Firm and Kaufman & Canoles P.C. “The pharmacy benefit managers control, through their pharmacy plan design and formulary management, which drugs go where and how they are paid for. And the retail pharmacies serve as the final link in the chain by releasing the opioids into the public.”

The suit details the effects of the epidemic on Winchester. Many of the more than 200 people who have overdosed in the region since 2012, including at least seven this year, were city residents. Citing statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the lawsuit noted that overdose deaths in Winchester increased from 10 per 100,000 people in 2003 to 25 per 100,000 in 2017.

The epidemic has also caused mental and physical disabilities and disease. Citing state Department of Health statistics, the lawsuit notes Winchester’s rate of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome — babies born with mental or physical ailments due to being exposed to prescription or illegal drugs while in the womb — was nearly 20 cases per 100,000 people in 2017. That’s more than double the statewide rate.

The rate of Hepatitis C virus, often caused by addicts using dirty needles, increased from about 109 cases per 100,000 people in 2013 in Winchester to 977 per 100,000 in 2017, a nearly 800% increase. The 2017 rate was about five times higher than the statewide rate.

The suit also touches on the cost to taxpayers for fire and police services responding to overdoses and drug-related crime. The 51 overdose calls police responded to last year were just a fraction of the 44,256 overall calls for service, but police Chief John Piper said there are far more drug-related calls.

Piper wouldn’t discuss the lawsuit because it’s pending litigation, but speaking in general, he said the crisis has taxed department resources. Two officers are assigned to the Northwest Virginia Drug and Gang Task Force. Another is assigned to the Law Enforcement Overdose Intervention Program, which seeks to steer addicts into treatment rather than arresting them.

And Piper said patrol officers regularly respond to drug-related property crimes and incidents of parental abuse and neglect connected to addiction. “It certainly has wide-ranging implications to how we police,” he said.

For residents like Julie Funkhouser, the epidemic is deeply personal. An ex-addict, Funkhouser has been sober since 2008, but her husband, Danny Gordon Funkhouser II, fatally overdosed in 2018. Funkhouser is now a drug counselor and CEO of The Recovery Connection, a halfway house serving seven women in recovery. Funkhouser said if damages are recovered, she hopes the money will be spent on treatment.

“A lot of these people who are so desperately in need, there’s nowhere from them to get treatment,” Funkhouser said. “There needs to be more services.”

Winchester’s lawsuit is one of more than 2,500 nationally, according to Reuters. Citing the Wall Street Journal, it reported on Friday that 21 states rejected an $18 billion settlement from AmeriSource Bergen Corp. — one of the companies in the Winchester suit — as well as Cardinal Health and McKesson.

The law firms representing Winchester are also representing more than 60 other Virginia communities including Alexandria as well as Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties, according to attorney Andrew H. Miller of Sanford, Heisler, Sharp. He said the firm isn’t being paid by city taxpayers, but would receive about 25% of any damages awarded. Miller said he’s hopeful the suit will be resolved expeditiously, but said it could take years.

“We’ve sued a lot of very large companies for a lot of money and they’re not going to just roll over and do the right thing just because they should,” he said. “(But) we hope to be able to try to do what we can to help the city address this problem and try to change the defendant’s behavior.”

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