A $570 million judgment in Oklahoma against Johnson and Johnson for fueling the opioid crisis raises the question of future settlements and judgments in hundreds of lawsuits, including several in Arkansas by both the state and cities and counties.
Outside Oklahoma, there are now about 2,000 lawsuits, largely from various levels of government, consolidated with a federal judge in Cleveland in an attempt to reach a single landmark legal resolution to the opioid epidemic — one that may force opioid makers like Purdue and Johnson & Johnson, but also distributors like CVS and Walgreens, to shell out even more to help pay for the drug addiction and overdose crisis.
There are two major legal arguments behind these cases, one against opioid manufacturers and another mainly against opioid distributors:
1) Starting in the mid-1990s, opioid manufacturers unleashed a misleading marketing push underplaying the risks of opioid painkillers and exaggerating the drugs’ benefits. This, the lawsuits argue, adds up to false advertising with deadly consequences — by encouraging doctors to overprescribe the pills and getting patients to think the pills were safe and effective.
2) Meanwhile, opioid distributors supplied a ton of these pills, even when they should have known they were going to people who were misusing the drugs. This is backed by data that shows that in some counties and states, there were more prescribed bottles of painkillers than there were people — a sign that something was going very wrong. Federal and some state laws require distributors to keep an eye on the supply chain to ensure their products aren’t falling into the wrong hands. Letting these drugs proliferate, the lawsuits say, violates those laws.
This is a good place to mention an Arkansas angle that turned up a few days ago in the New York Times. Said the story:
States that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act have seen a much bigger increase in prescriptions for a medication that treats opioid addiction than states that chose not to expand the program, a new study has found.
This is good, right? Arkansas expanded Medicaid and one of the positive effects of Medicaid expansion appears to be greater use of a drug, buprenorphine, that treats opioid addiction?
Sorry, no. The article continued:
Only one of the five states with the lowest buprenorphine prescribing rates in Medicaid — Arkansas — expanded the program. The other four were Texas, South Dakota, Florida and Kansas. The researchers noted that there could be other reasons for the lower number of prescriptions in some states, such as lower rates of opioid addiction or more restrictions on prescribing buprenorphine, as Arkansas has. But such factors, they said, could not explain the huge difference in prescribing rates.
You probably know that the prescription rate for opioids in Arkansas is sky-high, the second-highest in the country according to this 2017 ranking by the Centers for Disease Control.