Union Benefit Fund Takes on Big Pharma

By GREGORY N. HEIRES
As pharmaceutical companies continue their rampant hikes of drug prices and ignore the dangers of their products, DC 37 and other unions’ benefit funds, states, counties and cities are turning to the courts to level the field for our members and the public at large.

In recent months, DC 37’s Health & Security Plan has filed 18 lawsuits against the generic drug industry for illegal practices and price gouging. The skyrocketing cost of these drugs flies in the face of the supposed purpose of generic companies, which is to offer less expensive alternatives to brand-name drugs.

These lawsuits contend that generic manufacturers conspired to artificially inflate prices in violation of federal and state law.

Taking Big Pharma to court over opioids

opiodThe union is also part of a separate lawsuit filed in December that seeks damages from opioid manufacturers and distributors. The suit charges that the defendants failed to meet their legal responsibility to monitor and report dangerous uses of the drugs in order to maximize corporate profits.

One whistleblower reported that some manufacturers actually offered employees bonuses to convince doctors to prescribe higher doses of opioids.

The opioid suit is against Purdue Pharmaceutical and 11 other manufacturers and distributors. In 2007, Purdue and three of its executives pleaded guilty to the deceptive and fraudulent marketing of OxyContin.

Each day, about 150 persons in the United States die from opioid overdoses — more than 50,000 a year. Opioids are now the most prescribed class of drugs in the country.

The Federal Drug Administration approved opioids for treatment of severe pain, such as cancer and end-of-life care. But from 1992 to 2015, the total revenue of opioid companies jumped 960 percent to $9.6 billion from $1 billion, as they allegedly aggressively and illegally marketed the drugs for ailments they were not intended to treat, such as back pain.

The social costs of opioid abuse is $78.5 billion a year, according to a study published in the journal Medical Care in 2016.

DC 37’s benefit fund and other plaintiffs, including New York City and other municipalities, states, hospitals and unions, also seek to address the economic harm to the families of addicts who died from the use of opioids.

In announcing NYC’s suit against opioid manufacturers in January, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared: “Who’s getting away with bloody murder right now? The big pharmaceutical companies… It’s time for Big Pharma to pay for what they’ve done. It’s time that they are held accountable.”

In yet a third case, DC 37 and others are pursuing damages against Allergan Inc, which manufactures Restatis, a very expensive eyedrop medication. Allergan is accused of taking sham patent actions to delay the production and marketing of a generic equivalent of Restatis.

The United States is the only industrialized country that doesn’t regulate prices of pharmaceuticals.

“Because of the government’s unwillingness to regulate, we have had to turn to the courts to remedy price gouging and other unlawful practices,” said DC 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido, chair of the DC 37 Benefits Fund Trust.

 

A National Epidemic: Opioids at a Glance

● Every day in the United States, more than 1,000 people are treated in emergency rooms for misuse of opioids.

● More than 33,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2015. That number is expected to rise to over 50,000 in 2018.

● The death rate for opioid abuse far outpaces the number of deaths from cocaine and heroin combined. In many states, opioids are the leading accidental cause of death.

● Though opioids were originally intended to treat only the most severe pain, they are being prescribed increasingly for less severe types of pain; prescriptions have increased roughly 222 percent since 1992.

● Hundreds of opioid lawsuits against pharmaceuticals — brought by states, counties, cities, union funds, hospitals, Native American tribes, and individuals — have been consolidated.

● The major manufacturers facing litigation include Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson/Janssen, Insys, Teva, Cephalon, Activis and Endo.

This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Public Employee Press.

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