Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center, along with two Alabama hospitals, has filed a federal lawsuit against numerous pharmaceutical companies that make opioid painkillers, alleging deceptive marketing practices and treatment recommendations contributed to national crises of addiction and overdoses.
Southwest, along with Infirmary Health Hospital in Mobile and Monroe County Hospital in Monroeville, filed suit Thursday in U.S. District Court in Jackson against Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, as well as Johnson & Johnson, Teva Pharmaceuticals Industries, Endo Pharmaceuticals and others.
The hospitals allege the drug manufacturers “aggressively pushed highly addictive, dangerous opioids, falsely representing to doctors that patients would only rarely succumb to drug addiction.”
Norman Price, CEO of Southwest Health Systems, which operates Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center, said he’s personally received calls from frantic parents watching their children suffer from heroin withdrawals.
He said the hospital has also seen an increase of patients who come in with problems connected with drugs.
“The spectrum of problems are pretty broad. We see spice (synthetic marijuana) all the way through opioids, heroin, and we’re seeing more and more patients in our emergency room,” Price said Friday.
“That progresses and they move on into our intensive care units.”
Price said the problem is being seen not just in Southwest Mississippi but throughout the country.
“And it’s an issue that we’re going to have to deal with,” he said. “It’s becoming an epidemic. It starts with someone getting addicted to opioids through various means and prescriptions. When they can no longer get the prescriptions, they move on to heroin, and it’s causing a problem.”
Attorney Jerry Abdalla of McComb, who is one of the attorneys representing the hospitals, said the facilities should be compensated for the economic damages they face through treating opioids.
Another attorney working on the case is Don Barrett of Lexington, whose litigation against tobacco companies in the 1990s garnered billions of dollars for the state.
“The reality is everyone knows about opioid crisis that has taken over the U.S.A. When states filed the tobacco lawsuit, hospitals were damaged more than anyone and didn’t receive anything,” he said.
“We want to make sure they aren’t ignored this time. They’re the front line soldiers and they suffer huge damages and will continue to suffer. They’re the Good Samaritans in the opioid epidemic.”
The lawsuit, which represents one side of a legal argument, alleges that the drugmakers conducted a “marketing scheme designed to persuade doctors and patients that opioids can and should be used for chronic pain, resulting in opioid treatments for broader groups who are much more likely to become addicted and suffer adverse effects from the long-term use of opioids.”
The plaintiffs said this was done through training for sales representatives who were “required to stick to talking points.”
According to the Mississippi Department of Health, the five most prescribed controlled substances are hydrocodone, alprazolam, oxycodone, tramadol and amphetamine. From 1999-2016, some 165,000 Americans died from overdoses of pain medicine, state health officials said.
Mississippi is a leader in prescribing opioid painkillers, according to state health statistics. In July 2016 alone, 8.3 million dosage units were dispensed in the state, which has just under 3 million residents — enough for about 100 pills for each man, woman and child.
Abdalla said pharmaceutical companies, which he referred to as a “cartel,” profit a lot from the sale of the prescription drugs, and hospitals take the brunt of it.
“It cost hospitals untold amounts and they haven’t been compensated,” he said.
Price said the lawsuit seeks to “restore the resources that we allocate. Also, maybe put in place restrictions on distributions and manufacturers of prescriptions.”
He said a lot of the people who come to Southwest’s emergency room with problems connected to drugs don’t have the means to pay for the services, which leaves the hospital on the hook for the bill.
However, the goal of the lawsuit isn’t just about compensating hospitals, Price said.
“The revenues, if allotted, should not only go toward the acute treatment but treatment of curing addiction,” he said. “We don’t have the capacity to do that. And there also needs to be rehabilitation. There is also a mental aspect that has to be addressed. It’s a very complex problem and it cannot be fixed without the revenue allocated to it.”
Price said that while the lawsuit is to hold the companies that produce the drugs accountable, those in the medical profession must eventually change the way medicine is prescribed.
Abdalla said 18 states including Mississippi have filed lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies in an effort to combat the opioid epidemic, but the lawsuit is the first on behalf of the hospital.
“They’ve taken in these individuals, and they are dealing with them, while the cartel continues to make billons. It’s the hospitals that suffer losses. We’re not going to let that happen this time,” he said.