Education

The opioid crisis is hurting students, and now the School Board is suing Big Pharma

The Miami-Dade School Board is suing more than a dozen opiod drugmakers and distributors for the “millions” it has spent battling the “worst man-made epidemic in modern medical history.”

The School Board is seeking damages for the additional services it was forced to spend money on to “protect the health and welfare of the community it serves” from the opioid over-prescription and addiction the companies have caused, according to the lawsuit.

The costs mentioned include training school nurses, resource officers and others on how to properly treat drug overdoses, providing mental health services for students and families suffering from the opioid crisis, and increasing school security efforts to stop the flow of opioids into schools.

“The companies that develop and market opioids have caused rampant over-prescription and addiction. We have witnessed first-hand the devastating effects these drugs have had on families in our communities,” the School Board said in a statement. “These profit-driven entities have caused emotional, moral, and financial distress on our stakeholders. We will not rest until these wrongs have been addressed.”

The nearly 300-page federal lawsuit was filed in the Southern District of Florida earlier this week.

It will soon be transferred to the Northern District of Ohio to join over 2,000 other lawsuits in a multidistrict litigation against manufacturers including Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Actavis Pharma Inc — and retailers including CVS, Walgreens and Walmart.

The filing comes almost six months after the School Board’s attorney recommended joining the suit and two years after then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared the opioid epidemic to be a public health emergency.

Purdue Pharma, the maker of prescription opioid painkiller OxyContin, is not listed in the district’s lawsuit because of the company’s recent bankruptcy filings. The district says it plans on pursuing its claims against Purdue through the bankruptcy process.

Two major legal arguments

The lawsuits allege that the drugmakers conspired and created “deceptive” marketing strategies to underplay the risks of opioids and exaggerate the drugs’ benefits across the United States, including in Florida, to increase their profit and sales.

“The impact of the Opioid Marketing Enterprise has been particularly devastating in the areas served by The School Board of Miami-Dade County,” the district’s lawsuit reads. “Deaths and overdoses due to opioids, including heroin, fentanyl, and prescription opioids, have skyrocketed.”

The lawsuit also alleges that distributors noticed an increase of orders for opioid prescriptions in a number of Florida counties, which at times exceeded the county’s population, but failed to report, control or investigate these orders, as is required by law, further “deepening the crisis of opioid abuse, addiction, and death in Florida.”

The companies in question deny the allegations.

“Purdue will continue to defend itself vigorously against any misleading and inflammatory claims,” said Purdue Pharma in a statement. “The responsibility for this crisis cannot, as a matter of law, be tied to one company that manufactures a small fraction of the prescription opioids in the United States.”

Purdue is the company described in many lawsuits as the one who opened the gates to the opioid crisis with its prescription painkiller OxyContin by failing to disclose its risks to doctors and the public.

The company disagrees and says the painkillers have always had an FDA-approved label with warnings on abuse, addiction, overdose and death and was prescribed to patients by trained healthcare providers.

How bad is the crisis?

Drug Enforcement Agency data analyzed by the Herald/Times in July shows that one Walgreens in Port Richey alone received an average 74,706 pills per month. The city’s population is 2,831.

Back then, Walgreens said in a statement that the chain stopped distributing prescription controlled substances in 2014 and that it “has been an industry leader in combating this crisis.”

Overall, the number of opioids that moved through Florida was second only to California. It amounted to an average of 42 pills per Floridian per year from 2006 through 2012.

Drug overdoses are also one of the leading causes of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with more than 399,000 deaths caused by opioids, including prescription and illicit opioids from 1999 to 2017.

The opioid epidemic began in the 1990s with the increase of prescribed opioids, according to the center. It eventually opened the gateway to a second and third “wave” of overdose deaths involving heroin and synthetic opioids, particularly fentanyl.

the 3 waves cdc graphi_fitted.jpeg
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

In 2017 alone, over 70,000 people died from overdosing, with 68 percent of those deaths involving a prescription or illegal opioid. On average, 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose, according to the center.

What happens next?

The Miami-Dade County School Board is seeking an unspecified amount of damages, which is usual for cases like this, said Daryl Jones, an attorney who is serving as a district liaison in the lawsuit.

The companies are reportedly trying to settle the lawsuits through settlements and some are already in the process like Johnson & Johnson and its Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies, which is named in the lawsuits.

The company said in a statement this week that it had reached a $20.4 million deal with two Ohio counties “to avoid the resource demands and uncertainty of a trial.”

It still has the rest of the other opioid litigation’s to contend with.

The settlement makes it the fourth drugmaker to reach a deal ahead of the trial, which is slated to begin later this month in federal court in Cleveland, according to the Wall Street Journal. The trial is considered a bellweather for the thousands of opioid-related lawsuits that states and municipalities have filed against the companies.

Purdue Pharma’s filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last month would freeze the lawsuits against it and likely shift them into bankruptcy court, according to STAT, a health and medical website produced by Boston Globe Media. But, some state attorney generals said they would continue to seek additional damages from the company and members of the Sackler family, who control Purdue.

Jones said the multidistrict litigation is being described a the “largest lawsuit of its kind” in the world and everyone, he said, is asking the same question.

How will it be resolved?

“It is the million-dollar question, and people all over country are asking it,” said Maryland’s Attorney General Brian Frosh, who has joined most state attorneys general in taking civil action, according to The Baltimore Sun. “The crisis has been nationwide and the lawsuits so far-flung that it’s very difficult to figure out how to resolve them in one fell swoop.”

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Real Time/Breaking News Reporter. There’s never a dull moment in Florida — and I cover it. Graduated with honors from Florida International University. Find me on Twitter @TweetMichelleM
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