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Tennessee, Virginia hospitals sue opioid manufacturers, distributors

Matthew Lane • Sep 26, 2019 at 6:00 PM

GREENEVILLE — More than 30 hospitals in Tennessee and Virginia are suing Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson and more than 40 other companies involved in the manufacturing, distribution and sale of prescription opioids.

Among the local hospitals involved in the lawsuit are Holston Valley Medical Center and Indian Path Community Hospital in Kingsport, Bristol Regional Medical Center, Johnson City Medical Center and Niswonger Children’s Hospital in Johnson City, Lonesome Pine Hospital in Big Stone Gap, Mountain View Medical Center and Norton Community Hospital in Norton, Sycamore Shoals Hospital in Elizabethton and Unicoi County Hospital in Erwin. 

The lawsuit was filed in Greene County Circuit Court this week and comes after two decades of these hospitals providing front line care to the community in response to the opioid crisis.

“Hospitals have experienced significant, measurable damages and must be active participants in any opioid settlement discussions,” said Don Barrett, an attorney with Barrett Law Group who will serve as an additional counsel for the plaintiffs. Barrett also initiated tobacco litigation that brought about the 1998 Master Settlement agreement with the tobacco industry.

“No party is better positioned to lead us out of this public health crisis than hospitals, but effective treatment of such patients requires tremendous resources,” added Barrett.

The hospitals’ complaint alleges negligence, fraud and civil conspiracy by the defendants, which include Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Abbott Laboratories and more than 40 other companies and individuals involved in the manufacturing, distribution, and sales of prescription opioids.

“We believe the lawsuit speaks for itself and we have no additional comment to add,” said Meaghan Smith, communications manager for Ballad Health.

ABOUT THE COMPLAINT

The lawsuit alleges the defendants have engaged in a decades-long practice of making false assurances about the addiction risks associated with opioids, along with using other deceptive marketing tactics to persuade physicians and health care providers to broaden prescribing patterns.

The result has been widespread addiction, suffering, and loss of life in communities across Tennessee, Virginia and the nation, with hospitals bearing the financial burden of care and treatment for the victims.

As the opioid crisis has reached epidemic levels, especially in the Appalachian region, Tennessee and Virginia hospitals have provided massive amounts of care for which they have received little or no reimbursement. The hospitals have also made substantial investments in people, processes and facilities to properly care for patients with multiple health problems associated with treating the complications of opioid addiction.

“The negligent marketing efforts and deceptive narratives used by the defendants substantially contributed to an explosion in the use of opioids across the country – and the effects continue to be felt in hospitals every day,” said Gary Brewer, attorney with Brewer & Terry P.C., in Morristown, representing the hospitals. “Hospitals continue to provide heroic levels of care to opioid-addicted patients and have saved countless lives. But the financial, operational and emotional expense for hospitals, especially struggling rural hospitals, is astonishing. The defendants bear tremendous responsibility for the crisis they created.”

BY THE NUMBERS

Drug overdoses have become the leading cause of accidental death in Tennessee. From 2012-2017, the Volunteer State experienced record numbers of deaths from opioid use each year, with 1,186 in 2016 and 1,268 in 2017.

Fentanyl-related deaths increased 70 percent in 2017 and according to a 2019 study by economists at the University of Tennessee, providers in Tennessee write 1.4 prescriptions each year for every man, woman and child in the state.

Over on the Virginia side, 7,890 people died from an opioid overdose from 2007 to 2017, including 4,929 from prescription opioids, leading the state health commissioner to declare opioid addiction a public health emergency.

Industry analysts estimate the country’s healthcare system incurred more than $215.7 billion in costs related to the opioid crisis from 2001 to 2017, largely attributable to overdose-related emergency department visits.

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