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Lawsuit Against Opioid Companies Blames COVID-19 for Aggravating Crisis

November 19, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

SEATTLE — Testimony this week during a civil trial in Seattle could explain why opioid deaths set a record of more than 100,000 in a year by last April.

The class action lawsuit seeks $95 billion in damages against pharmaceutical companies that distribute the powerful painkillers. They are known to be highly addictive.

As the health system became overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, some people overdosed on opioids while their substance abuse treatment was made a lower priority and delayed, according to evidence presented at the trial in state court.

A Washington social worker testified to a “devastating” impact from the pandemic as she tried to help people struggling with addiction to find treatment. Many treatment facilities were closed down or switched to online services as the pandemic claimed more lives, she said.

“COVID has definitely interrupted our progress,” said Amy Miller, a social worker for the Port Angeles Rediscovery Program, which makes referrals for people with substance abuse and behavioral problems.

She was a witness for the state of Washington in its lawsuit against drug distributors AmerisourceBergen Corp., Cardinal Health Inc. and McKesson Corp. in King County Superior Court. State attorneys are suing under the Washington Consumer Protection Act.

Rural areas, which had few treatment options before the pandemic, were hit the hardest, Miller said.

Typically, addicted persons sought treatment for pain from injuries when they started using opioids like fentanyl, she testified. Once they started using the painkiller, they found they could not stop themselves, sometimes progressing to heroin, overdoses or death.

On the same day she testified, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that more than 100,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses between April 2020 and April of this year. The new record is nearly 30% higher than the 78,000 opioid overdose deaths in 2019.

Washington declined to participate in the $21 billion nationwide settlement the drug distributors reached with other states in July.

The Washington lawsuit is unusual for being based on a state consumer protection law. Other states have tried to sue in local courts but accused the drugmakers and distributors of violating their nuisance laws as a basis of liability.

Last week, the Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned a judgment against pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson that accused the company of creating a public nuisance with its opioids.

For the same reason, a California judge determined this month that Johnson & Johnson could not be blamed for the state’s opioid crisis.

About 3,000 other lawsuits nationwide are pending against companies that make or distribute opioids, most of them alleging a violation of nuisance laws.

Tom can be reached at [email protected]

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