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Jersey County sues pharmaceutical companies for opioid fallout

Dr. Benjamin Rathert explains why doctors need proper training on prescribing opioids

Dr. Benjamin Rathert, a family-practice doctor who also treats opioid addiction in Du Quoin, talks about the dangers of opioid overprescription and his belief that doctors need training on how to properly prescribe the addictive painkillers.
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Dr. Benjamin Rathert, a family-practice doctor who also treats opioid addiction in Du Quoin, talks about the dangers of opioid overprescription and his belief that doctors need training on how to properly prescribe the addictive painkillers.

Jersey County is suing pharmaceutical companies that it alleges made the prescription painkiller epidemic worse through deceptive marketing, and the lead attorney is the former chief judge of Madison County.

Jersey County State’s Attorney Ben Goetten filed suit against the makers of some of the most popular opioids, including OxyContin, Dilaudid, Opana, Percocet and others. To prosecute the suit, he has hired Ann Callis as assistant state’s attorney, as well as her Edwardsville law firm, Goldenberg Heller & Antognoli.

Callis was Madison County’s chief judge until she stepped down in 2014 to mount an unsuccessful challenge to U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, for Congress.

“These drug companies have raked in billions of dollars by deceitful advertising and fraudulent conduct that has brought misery and heartbreak to our community,” Geotten said in a news release.

Johnson & Johnson and Teva Phamacueticals did not respond to requests for comment.

In a statement responding to a similar lawsuit brought in St. Clair County, Purdue Pharma told the BND: “We share public officials’ concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions. OxyContin accounts for only 2 percent of the opioid analgesic prescription market nationally, but we are an industry leader in the development of abuse-deterrent technology and advocating for the use of prescription drug monitoring programs.”

The filing alleges that Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson and others duped health care providers and consumers by misrepresenting opioids’ risk of addiction, how much they could improve someone’s life, that withdrawal from opioids can be “easily managed” and more.

“They used doctors to spread deceptively that these opioid pain medications aren’t addictive,” Callis said.

Callis said when OxyContin was introduced, it was intended for cancer patients in extreme pain, but the $45 million profits in the late 90s were fairly stagnant. Once Purdue began marketing to non-chronic patients, she said, profits rose to $1.1 billion within four years, and more than $3 billion after 10 years.

The suit alleges that drug companies funded “key opinion leaders” to give misleading talks and present bad studies about their drugs to doctors, professional societies and patient groups. Callis said the companies funded and directed patient advocacy groups, which the suit calls “front groups,” to develop painkiller treatment guidelines that were then distributed by the companies themselves.

In 2007, three Purdue executives pleaded guilty in Virginia court to criminal fraud charges as the company paid $600 million in fines over the marketing of OxyContin. The executives personally paid $34.5 million, according to news reports.

But since then, not much has changed, Callis said.

“As a judge I saw it a lot, and now it’s even worse,” she said, describing felony dockets full of drug users committing other crimes to pay for more opioids. “Deaths and addictions are continuing to grow. Eighty percent of heroin users start with prescription opioids.”

The suit seeks penalties of $50,000 for every violation of the Illinois Fraud Act, an extra $10,000 per violation of the Act for people 65 and older, as well as the costs of the suit. If successful, Callis said, they hope to get injunctions to stop deceptive practices in marketing the drugs, and to earmark funds for addiction treatment.

Jersey County’s lawsuit is similar to one recently filed by St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly in April.

Since then, the suit was moved to federal court.

“While the suit is similar,” Goetten said, “the impact and potential damages from the opioid epidemic are unique to each individual county... There may be a time when these cases are consolidated but we chose to move forward to start the process.”

Other suits filed against pharmaceutical companies over opioids have been filed in several states, including Ohio, Mississippi, New York, California, Washington, and the Cherokee Nation. Meanwhile, Democratic and Republican congressmen formed a bipartisan heroin task force focused on opioid prescriptions as a gateway to heroin addiction — including Callis’ former opponent, Rep. Davis.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald

Casey Bischel: 618-239-2655, @CaseyBischel

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