A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Hospitals, including St.E., suing manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of opioid-based drugs

After two decades of providing frontline care in response to the opioid crisis, a group of 23 hospitals have filed a civil lawsuit in Warren County Circuit Court against the manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of opioid-based drugs. Kentucky hospitals have been on the front lines fighting and treating the complications of addiction as the opioid crisis has reached epidemic levels.
The complaint alleges defendants knowingly misrepresented the benefits and risks of opioids through aggressive marketing schemes, despite a lack of evidence to support their claims. As a result, hospitals have had to add or modify services, hire additional security personnel and provide increased and specialized training for staff to accommodate the rapid rise of opioid-related illnesses.
“Every day our clinicians and caregivers experience firsthand the devastating effects of addiction and its consequences,” said Pikeville Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Donovan Blackburn. “We’ve petitioned the state to allow us to double the size of our NICU and allow us to care for preemies of lower birth weight and lower gestational age. It’s a sad chapter of the opioid epidemic – and a reality that hospitals across the country are facing.”

Garren Colvin

Kentucky reached an all-time high of 1,566 lethal overdoses in 2017. By comparison, 782 people died in traffic accidents and 263 were murdered. One hundred thirty Americans die each day from opioid overdose, making it a leading cause of death for Americans under age 55 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Hospitals are in the unique position of not only treating the effects of opioid abuse and addiction but also in being a central part of the solution,” says Garren Colvin, President and CEO of St. Elizabeth Healthcare. “Emergency Departments offer an ideal environment to screen patients for opioid use disorder and initiate treatment. But without appropriate funding and increased resources, these patients are destined to continue the often tragic cycle of abuse, declining health and intermittent hospitalization.”
The hospitals’ complaint alleges negligence, fraud and civil conspiracy by the defendants, which include Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Abbott Laboratories and more than 40 other companies and individuals involved in the manufacturing, distribution, and sales of prescription opioids.
According to the filing, the unlawful actions are part of a decades-long practice in which the defendants made false assurances about the addiction risks associated with the opioid products and used other deceptive marketing tactics to persuade physicians and other health care providers to broaden prescribing patterns. The result has been widespread addiction, suffering, and loss of life in communities across Kentucky and the nation, with hospitals bearing the financial burden of care and treatment for the victims.
“The opioid crisis has fundamentally impacted the way care is administered. Hospitals feel it both operationally and financially, as those requiring treatment often rely on the use of limited financial resources available to hospitals,” says Ron Sowell, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, Med Center Health.

Mitchel Denham, Dressman Benzinger LaVelle law firm

Last month, former Ohio Governor John Kasich and West Virginia University President Dr. Gordon Gee recognized hospitals’ unique position to positively impact the opioid crisis by announcing the formation of Citizens for Effective Opioid Treatment at 130aday.com. The 501(c)(4) organization is working to educate business and community leaders and the public about the negative impact the crisis is having on the nation’s health care infrastructure while advancing evidence-based solutions to the opioid epidemic.
“No party is better positioned, given the appropriate financial resources, to lead us out of this public health crisis than hospitals,” said Mitchel Denham, attorney with Dressman Benzinger LaVelle representing the hospitals. “They have measurable damages and must be active participants in any opioid settlement discussions.”
Last month the American Hospital Association urged a judge hearing one of the opioid cases “to ensure that needed funds are directed to the hospitals and health systems that are on the forefront of caring for the victims of this epidemic. With additional resources, hospitals can broaden access to post-overdose treatment in emergency departments, increase training of physicians to treat substance use disorders, cover the costs of lengthy stays and follow-up care for infants with neonatal abstinence disorder, and invest in electronic health information systems to improve coordinated care and prevent overprescribing.”
The Kentucky hospitals join more than 300 other hospitals across the country that have filed similar suits against opioid manufacturers and distributors.

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