Courtroom is latest front in opioid battle, Lorain plans to sue makers, distributors of painkillers

LORAIN, Ohio – Susan Kannel’s heroin addiction didn’t start with a cliche visit to a back-alley drug dealer. Instead, she said it began in her Cleveland home, where she injured her back taking her son’s bike down a flight of stairs.

The 41-year-old mother of four said she went to see a doctor, who prescribed Vicodin for her pain. Before long she found herself telling doctors made up stories, so she’d get prescribed stronger medication. Then, after a trip to a drug treatment center, the doctors cut her off.

“I couldn’t get pain pills,” she said, “So I started buying them on the street and then when I couldn’t buy them on the street, I escalated to heroin.”

Kannel’s story is all too familiar. A 2014 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 75 percent of Americans who are addicted to opioids, including heroin, started with legal prescription drugs. Ohio also leads the nation in overdose deaths.

It’s why Ohio state and local officials are now filing separate lawsuits against drug makers and their distributors. Attorney General Mike DeWine filed a complaint against five of some of the nation’s largest makers of painkillers in Ross County Common Pleas Court.

Now, the cities of Dayton and Lorain said they are filing their own suits against those same manufacturers and their distributors. Lorain passed an emergency ordinance Monday night to hire the firm Climaco, Wilcox, Peca and Garofoli Co. LPA. It passed unanimously.

“They’ve turned a blind eye to the ill effects of opiates, of pain killers,” Lorain Mayor Chase Ritenauer said. “There is a connection there and we want that to bear that out in court.”

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Ritenaur said Lorain needs to be reimbursed for the cost of dealing with the crisis. State and local governments are spending money on Naloxone, or Narcan, the inhalant that can revive people from opiate overdoses. They’re also spending money on drug treatment centers, like Cleveland’s Women’s Recovery Center.

“Our client base now is 60 percent opioid addicted,” Executive Director Mary Jane Chichester said. “That’s up almost four times what it had been four years ago.”

Chichester said it was the right move to sue drug makers.

“They have through the years intentionally said that there was no evidence that these medications were addictive,” Chichester added.

“Somebody somewhere along the way is making a lot of money and don’t even care that I’ma addicted,” Kannel said. “They don’t care that I’m sitting in a treatment center struggling with sobriety. I really truly believe that. They don’t care.”

News 5 reached out to every party named in both the suit filed by the state as well as the suits planned in Dayton and Lorain.

They include drug makers Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson, Endo Pharmaceuticals and Allergan.

The suits planned in Lorain and Dayton also name the distributors McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health Inc, AmerisourceBergen Corporation along with individual doctors Russell Portenoy, Perry Fine, Scott Fishman and Lynn Webster.

Lynn Webster, who is the President of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, once called the idea that overprescribing of opioids has lead to the current crisis, “a myth.” When reached Monday, he said “I don’t understand how any reasonable person could think I contributed to our national opioid crisis.  The plaintiff’s attorneys are misinformed.”

Here’s what else each party that responded via email Monday told News 5.

CARDINAL HEALTH:
“The people of Cardinal Health care deeply about the devastation opioid abuse has caused American families and communities and are committed to helping solve this complex national public health crisis. We are industry leaders in implementing state-of-the-art controls to combat the diversion of pain medications from legitimate uses, and have funded community education and prevention programs for a decade. We operate as part of a multi-faceted and highly regulated healthcare system – we do not promote, prescribe or dispense prescription medications to members of the public – and believe everyone in that chain, including us, must do their part, which is ultimately why we believe these copycat lawsuits filed against us are misguided, and will do nothing to stem the crisis. We will defend ourselves vigorously in court and at the same time continue to work alongside regulators, manufacturers, doctors, pharmacists and patients to fight opioid abuse and addiction.”

AMERISOURCEBERGEN:
“AmerisourceBergen is a logistics company who is responsible for getting Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved drugs from pharmaceutical companies who manufacturer them to Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) registered pharmacies who dispense them based on prescriptions written by licensed health care providers. We do not have access to patient information, have no ability to encourage prescribing or dispensing of pain medicines and are not qualified to interfere with clinical decisions between patients and their physicians. In addition to reporting and stopping orders determined to be suspicious, we also provide daily reports about the quantity, type and receiving pharmacy of every single order of controlled substances we distribute to regulatory and enforcement professionals.

We intend to vigorously defend ourselves in this litigation while continuing to work collaboratively to combat drug diversion.”

JANSSEN/JOHNSON & JOHNSON:
“We firmly believe the allegations in this lawsuit are both legally and factually unfounded. Janssen has acted appropriately, responsibly and in the best interests of patients regarding our opioid pain medications, which are FDA-approved and carry FDA-mandated warnings about the known risks of the medications on every product label.

At Janssen, we put the needs and well-being of the patients, caregivers and families we serve first. More than 100 million American adults suffer from chronic pain, a significant public health problem that places a tremendous emotional and financial burden on patients and their families. Our opioid pain medications give doctors and patients important choices to help manage the debilitating effects of chronic pain.”

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ALLERGAN:
“Allergan has a history of supporting — and continues to support — the safe, responsible use of prescription medications. This includes opioid medications, which when sold, prescribed and used responsibly, play an appropriate role in pain relief for millions of Americans.”

TEVA:
“For many years, Teva has been committed to the appropriate promotion and use of opioids.  We have programs in place that educate prescribers, pharmacists, and patients on the responsible and safe use of these products.  We are committed to working with the healthcare community, regulators and public officials to collaboratively find solutions.”

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