Federal opiates case offers hope for answers, remedies


Over the course of at least the next several months, the eyes of a nation plagued by an odious opiate epidemic will focus squarely on a federal courthouse in downtown Cleveland.

That’s where a landmark lawsuit filed by more than 200 counties and communities ravaged by record high rates of overdoses will play out.

The case, officially known as the National Prescription Opiate Multi District Litigation No. 2804, alleges that manufacturers of prescription opioids have overstated their benefits and downplayed their addictive risks while aggressively marketing them to physicians. The consolidated suit also accuses drug distributors of failing to monitor, detect, investigate and report suspicious orders of prescription opiates in violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act.

It is our hope that the case proceeds rapidly so that gnawing questions on the scope of drug manufacturers’ complicity to the epidemic can at last be more fully answered.

A thorough but expeditious resolution of the case also holds hope for the creation of new policies to more rigidly limit their distribution and to compensate U.S. communities monetarily for the enormous burdens they’ve endured in treatment, law enforcement and other costs aligned with the epidemic.

Early signs invite cautious optimism toward meeting those goals.

First, the fact that the dozens of lawsuits have been consolidated into one comprehensive package is sound. That format should help grease the wheels of justice. With hundreds of Americans dying daily from the opiate scourge, time is a precious commodity in this case.

In addition, settlement of the case theoretically could require Big Pharma to dispatch sorely needed aid to ravaged communities, including those in the Mahoning Valley and Ohio that are in the epicenter of the epidemic.

We’re also heartened that the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation in Washington appointed Judge Daniel Polster of the U.S. Northern District of Ohio to oversee the case.

By all accounts, Judge Polster is tailor made for this landmark litigation. He has the experience of adjudicating other multidistrict lawsuits and has a deep-seated passion to get productive results to rein in the epidemic.

“My objective is to do something meaningful to abate this crisis and do it in 2018,” Judge Polster said last week.

Our hopes also are buoyed by legal precedent of constructive results from other multidistrict cases. One of the largest involved hundreds of lawsuits in 1998 brought against the four largest U.S. tobacco manufacturers that resulted in far less aggressive marketing practices and in monetary compensation to states that continues today.

Many of the same questions over unscrupulous marketing practices rise to the forefront in the opiates case. We’ll be monitoring it closely for answers on the extent to which drug makers and drug distributors have contributed to the gargantuan growth of the epidemic that now claims more lives of adults under 50 than diseases, car crashes or gun violence.

ANSWERS SOUGHT

In addition to concrete answers on the scope of the pharmaceutical industry’s role in exacerbating the health crisis, we’re hopeful that settlement of the lawsuits ultimately can bring much needed capital resources to communities in the Mahoning Valley and the nation that have been pounded by the costs to treat victims and to prosecute offenders. We also hope the final settlement will produce concrete strategies for lessening access and reducing the outrageous toll on lives and livelihoods the epidemic has taken.

At the first session last week, Polster urged more than 100 attorneys for both plaintiff communities and defendant drug-makers to work assiduously toward an out-of-court settlement to avoid the time, tedium and costs associated with carrying the case through the long labyrinthe of the justice system.

Such a settlement, we suspect, would ride heavily on drugmakers acknowledging some responsibility for the crisis and in lessening its scope.

“With all these smart people here and their clients I’m confident we can do something to dramatically reduce the number of opioids that are being disseminated, manufactured and distributed,” the judge bluntly told them.

Polster is correct. All parties should waste no time toward achieving those ends.

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