Opioid Epidemic ‘Engulfing’ U.S. Court Systems: Paper 

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The huge cash settlements demanded in suits against pharmaceutical manufacturers should be used to help relieve the pressures on courts across the U.S. caused by the opioid epidemic, argues the editor of a major international medical journal.

According to Markus B. Zimmer, executive editor of the International Journal for Court Administration, the sheer scale of the opioid epidemic has “engulfed” courts at every level, putting severe strains on the system.

“In family court systems, opioid addiction’s impact reverberates in the dependency docket as parents rendered incompetent by their addiction forfeit custody of children who then are assigned to relatives, often aging grandparents on fixed incomes, or channeled into foster-home networks, overwhelming limited resource capacity,” he wrote in an editorial essay.

“Increasingly, early childhood courts rescue helpless victims whose mental and physical lives must be re-ordered. Juvenile courts respond to increased incidents of delinquency to finance addiction or to accidents attributable to the functionality losses that addictive episodes and withdrawal trigger.

The epidemic has effectively added a burden to much of the alternative court system that has emerged over the past several decades to diversify defendants from punishment, he added.

“The impact [of opioid addiction] also disproportionately consumes resources in specialty venues that include drug courts, mental health courts and veterans’ courts, among others,” Zimmer wrote in an essay titled, Judges and Courts Respond to Opioid Litigation Engulfing U.S. Court Systems .

And the economic costs to American society have been staggering.

In 2015, the White House Council of Economic Advisors estimated that “opioid crisis-related costs would total $504 billion or 2.8 percent of GDP.” Altarum, a prominent nonprofit healthcare research firm, projected the costs between 2001 and 2017 for the country would exceed $1 trillion.

Some of these costs can be recovered through settlements pursued against major manufacturers of prescription pain drugs like OxyContin who have been accused of misleading marketing and distribution, Zimmer wrote.

Zimmer noted that this isn’t the first time the U.S. experienced an addiction crisis. Between 1840 and 1920, an estimated 80,000-100,000 Americans were addicted to Chinese Opium. During the 1960s through the 1980s, the heroin epidemic exacted a terrible toll. At its peak in 1970, heroin was responsible for just under 80,000 deaths and “culminated in mass incarceration for non-violent crimes involving the possession, use and distribution of illicit drugs.”

But the scale of the opioid epidemic—and the rising number of deaths—took much of the court system by surprise.

In an effort to develop better approaches at the judicial level, Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor convened in 2016 a nine-state Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative (RJOI) to develop strategies to provide prompt access to treatment, engage prescription drug-monitoring programs, target interdiction by law enforcement and coordinate with broad-based community action programs. In September 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance provided a $1 million grant to the Ohio Supreme Court to fund the initiative.

But the next challenge is to ensure that governments get some of the money back.

Civil court proceedings against prescription-opioid manufacturers and distributors have been mounted at every level of the court system, but it is not always certain how the funds from winning settlements will be used..

Judge Dan Arron Polster, of the Northern District of Ohio was tasked by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation to come up with a new framework to approach court procedures when battling opioid manufacturers.

Judge Polster advised circumventing pretrial discovery and lessening “the time consuming quagmire of motions and hearings generated by it.” This, he argued, would open up more time and resources to be spent on “claims resolution through accelerated settlement proceedings.”

The new strategies seem to be paying off, Zimmer wrote—most notably when Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, “publicly announced it would cease its aggressive marketing campaign focused on prescribing physicians and deceptively downplaying the risks of addiction.”

They’ve also since paid Massachusetts General Hospital $3 million in a settlement.

Still, many families and experts consider Purdue Pharma’s response “too little, too late” for the damaging effects of OxyContin.

Markus B. Zimmer’s full editorial can be found here: Judges and Courts Respond to Opioid Litigation Engulfing U.S. Court Systems.

Additional Reading: Insys Will Pay $225M to Settle Opioid Kickback Case

This summary was prepared by TCR news intern Andrea Cipriano.

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