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Alexandria sues pharmaceutical companies over opioid crisis

Alexandria is suing the producers of OxyContin and other opioid manufacturers.
Alexandria is suing the producers of OxyContin and other opioid manufacturers. (George Frey/Reuters)

The city of Alexandria, Va., is suing sellers of prescription painkillers, saying drug addiction has killed scores of residents and overwhelmed city services.

Alexandria is asking $100 million from the companies, which include manufacturers, distributors and pharmaceutical providers.

The city joins dozens of state, county and city governments across the country that have taken opioid providers to court to argue that the companies that profited so much from the drugs should help pay for their destructive effects. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland are among those who have sued opioid manufacturers and distributors.

Hundreds of federal lawsuits have been consolidated before U.S. District Judge Dan Polster in Ohio, who is trying to reach a settlement between the two sides. The Department of Justice recently intervened, demanding its own reimbursement for the money the federal government has spent dealing with opioid abuse.

But many more suits, including Alexandria’s and another filed on behalf of Dickenson County in rural Southwest Virginia, are being pursued in local courts. It’s one of two lawsuits against pharmaceutical firms filed in Virginia on Wednesday, the first ones in a state where overdose deaths have been on the rise. In 2016, 1,138 people died of opioid overdoses in Virginia, and 1,217 deaths are estimated in 2017.

The Alexandria lawsuit argues that pharmaceutical companies lied about the addictiveness of prescription narcotics while distributors ignored the flow of pain pills onto the black market. It also alleges that managers of health-care benefits encouraged cheap opioid prescriptions while discouraging addiction treatment or the sale of drugs that are harder to misuse.

Several companies named as defendants denied the allegations and said they have worked closely with the Drug Enforcement Administration, doctors and prosecutors to combat opioid abuse.

The flood of prescription opioids across the country led to an increase in illegal heroin use, the lawsuit alleges, that has put a burden on police, courts, jails and social services.

There were nine fatal overdoses in Alexandria last year in a city of about 160,000 people, according to officials. At least 44 city residents died of opioid overdoses in the previous four years.

Alexandria has one of only four drug treatment programs run by a local government in Virginia, according to officials, and is now struggling to keep it running. The city is also considering forming a Drug Treatment Court to deal with addicts but it says such a move would be costly.

The companies are accused in Alexandria Circuit Court of fraud, negligence, conspiracy and causing a public nuisance.

“We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense,” a spokesman for OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma said in a statement.

In 2007, Purdue and three of its executives pleaded guilty to falsely marketing OxyContin as less addictive than other opioids and paid more than $600 million in fines.

Kentucky’s attorney general sued Purdue in 2007 on similar grounds; the company settled in 2015 for $24 million.

Purdue announced last month that it is no longer promoting opioids to doctors and has cut its sales force in half.

John Parker, senior vice president at the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, said in a statement that “ the idea that distributors are responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works.”

Allergan, another defendant, said the company stopped promoting opioids in 2013.

But Kevin Sharp, one of the attorneys representing Alexandria, said these companies have yet to fully come to terms with and pay for their role in a devastating wave of addiction.

Sharp, along with the Cicala Law Firm, is also suing on behalf of Dickenson County, for $30 million in damages. Home to about 16,000 people on the Kentucky border, Dickenson is among the places in Virginia hardest hit by the opioid crisis and at high risk of an HIV or hepatitis C outbreak because of shared needle use, according to the CDC.

“It’s in everybody’s interest to find a solution here,” Sharp said. “The country can’t go on like this.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the Healthcare Distribution Alliance as a defendant in the lawsuit.

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