Pam Bondi has made cracking down on pill mills the cornerstone of two successful runs for Florida attorney general.
But it wasn’t until Thursday, after the crackdowns helped worsen an opioid crisis that now kills at least 15 Floridians a day, that she outlined possible legal action against the drug companies that started it all.
Later this month, Bondi will send her chief deputy, Trish Connors, to a federal courtroom in Ohio to try to negotiate a settlement between hundreds of other plaintiffs suing opioid manufacturers and distributors, she said Thursday.
“Am I optimistic we’re going to resolve it that day? No,” Bondi told reporters. “And if we’re not, we’re prepared to go to litigation.”
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Florida isn’t suing the manufacturers — not yet — but the Ohio trip could be the first step toward joining a Big Tobacco-type settlement that could yield untold millions for the state.
A federal judge in Cleveland is trying to combine the more than 200 states, cities and counties that have already sued the drug makers with the 41 other states, including Florida, that are considering suing them.
The hope, U.S. District Judge Dan Polster told the Associated Press last week, is to create a “global” settlement this year. A Jan. 31 meeting between both sides is the first step.
“It’s clear that any resolution has to be a global one and needs to include the states, and lawsuits that have been filed and lawsuits that are contemplated,” Polster said.
But Bondi is not required to join the lawsuit and could sue the companies separately in federal or state court. In the Big Tobacco lawsuits of the 1990s, for example, Florida’s $11.3 billion agreement was separate from the “global” settlement with 46 other states.
Am I optimistic we’re going to resolve it that day? No. And if we’re not, we’re prepared to go to litigation.
Pam Bondi, Florida attorney general
Bondi said her office was hiring outside lawyers to represent Florida.
“I feel it’s in [the drug companies’] best interests to attempt to resolve it as early as possible and at least correct their conduct,” she said. “And then we’ll go back and get all the money that they owe these people.”
Bondi, who led the crackdown on pill mills that further inflamed an opioid crisis, has been a proponent of expanding treatment and services for addicts.
But up until now, she’s stayed away from filing a lawsuit. Instead, last year she joined 40 other states in an investigation into the drug companies, which has brought criticism and demands for answers from politicians, including Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami.
“I would like to know whether your office has taken any steps outside of the multi-state investigation to determine whether these drug companies should be held liable for their role in the opioid crisis,” Rodriguez wrote earlier this month. “As we all know, this is now, and has been for some time, a full-blown public health crisis and there is no time to waste.”
Bondi would not answer questions Thursday about whether the companies have complied with the investigators’ subpoenas.
Cities such as Delray Beach and some counties, including Palm Beach and Broward, have sought their own lawsuits.
Today’s heroin crisis was more than two decades in the making. Drug companies such as Purdue Pharma, the creator of OxyContin, misled the public about the drug’s addictive properties. Another company, Cardinal Health, ignored suspicious drug orders around the country. Both companies have paid federal fines for their behavior.
In Bondi’s first year in office in 2011, she supported a prescription drug monitoring program and efforts to close down illegal pain clinics, so-called “pill mills.” But the state did little to help those already addicted, and with prescription pills harder to get, addicts turned to a far deadlier substitute: heroin.
Bondi on Thursday called the drug companies’ actions over the last two decades “outrageous” and said, “I’m over them.”
“It’s about time they all step up to the plate and admit what they’ve been doing, and we won’t back down on that,” she said.