While giant drug firms like Purdue Pharma position themselves as “key players” in the fight against COVID-19, they’re quietly fighting a “renewed wave” of opioid crisis lawsuits.
Thousands of local, state and federal lawsuits that were previously put on hold during the pandemic are being rejuvenated, NPR reports.
As some courts reopen for business, cases against the nation’s largest pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies — including Johnson & Johnson, McKesson, Purdue Pharma, Walgreens, Rite Aid, CVS, and Giant Eagle — are now moving forward.
The main claim is consistent, saying that these companies should pay for the miscarriage of justice that was the decades-long manufacturing and sale of highly addictive opioid medication.
The highly addictive medications have contributed to the overdose deaths of more than 230,000 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“Of those deaths, almost 70 percent involved a prescription or illicit opioid,” the CDC says.
What’s worse, advocates say, is that opioid deaths have surged during the pandemic.
Renewed Lawsuits and Scandals
“I think [the renewed wave of lawsuits] is quite serious,” Rebecca Haffajee, who studies opioid litigation for the Rand Corp. and the University of Michigan, told NPR.
“There have been delays associated with COVID, but I actually don’t think there’s an end in sight for a lot of these defendants,” Haffajee continued.
According to Reuters, the Justice Department filed civil and criminal claims against Purdue Pharma, makers of Oxycontin, in July. The claims are worth more than $13 billion, complicating that company’s recent bankruptcy proceedings.
Just last week, a federal judge in Ohio ruled that a major case against drugstore pharmacy chains dispensing “huge quantities of opioids” can go forward.
Meanwhile, a court in Tennessee scheduled a jury trial for September involving drug-makers Endo and Mallinckrodt where local governments in that case are seeking opioid-related damages of roughly $2.5 billion, NPR detailed.
Scandals have made their way into headlines, detailing poor addiction treatment and an increase in opioid deaths during the coronavirus pandemic — all which add fuel to the fire against Big Pharma and the push for justice, NPR writes.
Anecdotal evidence can be seen across the country: growing wait lists for addiction treatment facilities, reduced hours, facilities that are shut down, and quarantine restrictions for methadone treatment access are all a part of the narrative.
The coronavirus “just totally scrambled the life of someone with an opioid addiction,” Dr. Charles Reznikoff, who specializes in addiction medicine told PBS.
Advocates hope that these renewed lawsuits will help bring justice and make helpful addiction programs a priority.
Some pharmaceutical companies are trying to “pivot” in the public’s eye and protect themselves from backlash after having to publicly settle large settlements, NPR explains.
“We’re facing arguably one of the most serious health challenges the world has ever faced, but we’re doing our absolute very best to make sure we can navigate our way through,” Johnson and Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky said in a webcast to investors this summer.
Underlining the point, Johnson & Johnson announced “a $1 billion deal with the federal government aimed at producing millions of doses of a vaccine now in development.”
Some of these new pivots include painting the picture that the big pharmaceutical companies are “philanthropists and champions of public health” while they advertise that they’re working on COVID-19 testing and vaccine development.
While their work in the healthcare space against the pandemic is real, many who have personally been hurt by the opioid crisis are not ready to let go of the past.
“They’re not going to be allowed to just walk away and say, well, a couple hundred million dollars is the best we can do,” Gerard Stranch, an attorney representing Tennessee communities ravaged by the addiction crisis told NPR. “Even if you took all their money, you’re not going to be able to right the harm they’ve done.”
“The amount of damage is simply too great.”
Additional Reading: Can Lessons From the Opioid Epidemic Apply to COVID-19?
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.