Central Texas County sues nation's biggest drug makers, accuses them of fraud

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CENTRAL TEXAS -- McLennan County announced Tuesday it had filed a lawsuit against two dozen of the country's largest opioid manufacturers and distributors, including Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson.

In the federal complaint obtained by Channel 6, McLennan County Commissioners allege the opioid industry used a marketing scheme to deceive doctors and used front groups to promote opioids as a means of treating chronic pain, while downplaying the risks.

"Defendants falsely instructed doctors and patients that signs of addiction are actually signs of under-treated pain and should be treated by prescribing more opioids," the complaint said.

The county alleges the pharmaceutical industry targeted vulnerable patients like veterans and elderly individuals in McLennan County and knowingly prescribed them highly addictive opioids for chronic pain. McLennan County also accuses the pharmaceutical industry of committing fraud by misrepresenting opioids to physicians. The lawsuit further accuses the companies of negligence and claims they violated the Texas Controlled Substance Act.

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The county is seeking both punitive and exemplary damages, along with restitution for local customers who bought opioids for chronic pain.

The McLennan County Commissioners hired the law firms of Haley & Olson, P.C. and Harrison Davis Steakley Morrison Jones, P.C. to represent them in court.

“The opioid epidemic has created a tremendous burden for counties across the country and McLennan County is no exception to that rule," Attorney Craig Cherry said. "This epidemic has caused an increase in costs for a number of different services the county provides, all at taxpayer expense.  We look forward to working for the county and its taxpayers to try and recoup those tax dollars.”

The county said healthcare providers nationwide wrote more than 289 million opioid prescriptions in 2016 alone.

"The economic burden caused by opioid abuse in the United States is approximately $78.5 billion," the county said in a press release, which attributed that figure to decreases in productivity and increased social service, judicial and health insurance costs.

Seventy-seven opioid prescriptions were dispensed for every 100 people in McLennan County in 2015. Both that number and the death rate attributable to drug poisoning in McLennan County exceeded state averages, according to the county.

Earlier this month, Upshur County became the first in Texas to sue the painkiller manufacturers and distributors in federal court, according to the Texas Tribune.

Purdue Pharma released the following statement:

“We are deeply troubled by the opioid crisis and we are dedicated to being part of the solution. As a company grounded in science, we must balance patient access to FDA-approved medicines, while working collaboratively to solve this public health challenge. Although our products account for approximately 2% of the total opioid prescriptions, as a company, we’ve distributed the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain, developed three of the first four FDA-approved opioid medications with abuse-deterrent properties and partner with law enforcement to ensure access to naloxone. We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense.”