Crime & Courts

Wichita plans to join massive lawsuit against prescription pain-killer industry

Wichita plans to join more than 2,000 other cities, counties and other units of government in a massive lawsuit against prescription pain pill manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies.

The companies targeted in the lawsuits are some of the largest in the pharmaceutical industry, including Purdue Pharmaceuticals, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Allergan, Jannsen/Johnson & Johnson, Endo Pharmaceuticals, Insys Therapeutics and Amneal Pharmaceuticals. National pharmacy retailers CVS, Walgreens and Kroger have also been named in the lawsuit.

The city would seek damages for the costs of law enforcement, first responders, courts, jails and other services strained by fighting prescription pain pill use allegedly caused by the pharmaceutical industry’s marketing and distribution aimed at expanding opioid sales.

Wichita has not yet filed a complaint, but it could be filed by the end of the week, according to Andrew Hutton, one of the lead attorneys representing the city.

He said the suit will target two primary causes of the opioid epidemic:

a marketing scheme that used false and deceptive marketing for prescription opioids, designed to dramatically increase the demand for and sale of opioids

a supply-chain scheme where the various entities involved in the supply chain failed to design and operate systems to identify suspicious orders of prescription pain killers or to do anything about it after it was identified. That also fueled an illegal secondary market.

Sedgwick County filed a similar complaint in 2017. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, one of the largest opioid manufacturers whose products include OxyContin, in state court earlier this year. Both cases are pending.

Hutton, whose firm Hutton and Hutton Law was approved by City Council to represent the city, told The Eagle in a written statement that opioid manufacturers used deceptive marketing to maximize profits, convincing doctors to prescribe pains pills “not only for the kind of severe pain associated with cancer or short-term post-operative pain, but also for common chronic pains, such as back pain and arthritis.”

“They did this even though they knew that opioids were addictive and subject to abuse, and that their claims regarding the risks, benefits, and superiority of opioids for long-term use were untrue and unfounded,” he wrote.

The city will seek “an award for punitive damages for the reckless disregard for human safety” and an order for the opioid industry to “disgorge all revenues and profits derived from their scheme,” he wrote.

If successful, Hutton’s firm would receive 20% of Wichita’s damages. What that award could be is unclear at this time.

Putting a dollar value on the opioid crisis in Wichita could involve simple calculations such as how much it costs to supply officers with Narcan, a spray used to reverse an opioid overdose, to more complex costs like health insurance and worker’s compensation, Hutton said.

Wichita’s damages could come from medical care costs for providing treatments for patients suffering from opioid-related addiction or disease, providing care for children whose parents are disabled or incapacitated due to opioids, emergency-response to opioid-related calls, police and increased burden on municipal court, Hutton said.

At the county level, the Wichita area had 148 opioid-related deaths last year, according to the Sedgwick County Regional Forensic Science Center’s 2018 annual report. That was a seven-case increase from the year before and about average for the past five years.

Sixteen of those cases were heroin overdoses, a five-case increase from the year before. Hutton said many people turned to heroin only after becoming addicted to pain pills prescribed by doctors. Fentanyl-related deaths doubled, from 15 to 30, over the past two years. The other deaths were oxycodone and other opioids not broken down by category.

City staff and Hutton and Hutton will prepare a fact sheet listing the costs to Wichita at a later date.

The City Council approved hiring Hutton and Hutton on Tuesday to represent the city in federal litigation in the Northern District Court of Ohio, where individual cases against the opioid industry have been consolidated.

Mayor Jeff Longwell said the lawsuit is “sharing that we want to make sure that someone’s held accountable for the distribution of opioids” in Wichita. But Wichita’s biggest problem is still meth, he said.

Methamphetamine-related deaths also climbed last year. From 2014 to 2018, that number jumped from 51 to 115.

“If you talk to the sheriff and the police chief, what they will tell you is our biggest problem is meth,” Longwell said. “And so opioids hasn’t probably hit us like it has in some of the other cities around the country, but I think it still helps us to be proactive, even though we’re not in the same level of crisis that some cities are.

“But our focus right now is still trying to figure out how to combat the meth crisis that’s in our community,” he said.

The city isn’t spending any money on the lawsuit, but staff time will be dedicated to helping calculate the cost of the opioids in Wichita.