Twenty-seven West Virginia hospitals, including Charleston Area Medical Center, filed a lawsuit Monday against opioid manufacturers and distributors, alleging the companies’ false marketing practices and unfettered pill shipments fueled the addiction crisis and forced hospitals to absorb enormous health care costs.
The lawsuit, filed in Marshall County Circuit Court, is believed to be the first time hospitals have targeted drug makers and shippers, accusing the companies of a “criminal conspiracy” that made treatment costs skyrocket.
“This is a big step toward asking the responsible parties be held accountable for the role they played in this crisis,” said Ron Pellegrino, chief operating officer at West Virginia University Hospitals, which joined the lawsuit.
Other hospitals listed as plaintiffs include Appalachian Regional Healthcare in Beckley, Camden Clark Memorial Hospital in Parkersburg and Mon Health Medical Center and United Medical Center in Morgantown. Ten Kentucky hospitals also have signed onto the lawsuit. The companies being sued include OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, and two of the nation's largest drug distribution firms — AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health.
The lawsuit alleges the manufacturers and distributors “extracted billions of dollars of revenue from the addicted American public while hospitals sustained tens of millions of dollars in losses.”
The widespread use of opioids led to a surge in overdoses and hospital emergency room visits, according to the lawsuit. Costs to treat patients addicted to opioids at hospitals has tripled over the past decade. And many of those patients struggling with addiction lacked health insurance to pay for their hospital stays.
The lawsuit aims to help hospitals recoup those expenses.
“West Virginia hospitals are at the front line of the opioid epidemic,” Pellegrino said, “and our ability to deliver care has been compromised because of the enormous amount of resources we have had to dedicate to treating those affected by it.”
Charleston lawyer Stephen Farmer is representing the hospitals.
The companies also face lawsuits from a growing list of towns and cities in West Virginia and other states that seek to hold them accountable for an epidemic that led to more than 70,000 deaths nationwide in 2017. The bulk of those cases have been consolidated in federal court in Cleveland. The first trial is scheduled for October.
The manufacturers and distributors have denied that their actions contributed to the opioid epidemic. West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation.
In a related matter, lawyers for HD Media, which owns the Charleston Gazette-Mail and the Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, plan to argue in court Thursday for the release of opioid pill shipment data that drug distribution companies and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration have joined forces to keep under wraps. The West Virginia newspapers, along with The Washington Post, are appealing a federal judge’s decision to block the release of the pill numbers.
The hearing will take place in the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Cincinnati. The lawsuit filed against the companies alleges that they shipped an excessive number of prescription painkillers to pharmacies across the nation, fueling the opioid epidemic.
In 2017, the cities of Charleston, Huntington and Kenova, along with the town of Ceredo, filed a class-action lawsuit against the nation’s largest hospital accreditation agency, alleging the group took part in a “misinformation campaign” that downplayed the dangers of prescription painkillers. The cities are suing The Joint Commission, a Chicago-based nonprofit that accredits more than 21,000 hospitals and other health care organizations in the United States.
The lawsuit alleges The Joint Commission teamed up with Purdue Pharma and issued pain management standards in 2001 that “grossly misrepresented the addictive qualities of opioids.” The commission “zealously” enforced the standards through its accreditation programs, according to the complaint filed in federal court.
West Virginia hospitals that treated patients had to follow the pain standards to stay accredited. The standards led to a sharp increase in prescriptions for painkillers.
Editor's note: McKesson is not listed as a defendant in this lawsuit. A previous version of this article mistakenly listed the company as a defendant.