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August 09, 2019

Annual 2019: Lawyers role in opioid crisis response highlighted by panel

The opioid epidemic has been widely characterized as the one of the greatest public health epidemics in our nation’s history.

The federal government reports that on average, drug-related overdoses claim the lives of 130 Americans each day. And deaths specifically related to prescription opioids, heroin and illicit fentanyl are having a historic negative impact on life expectancy, as overdose is now the leading cause of death among people under age 50 in the United States.

Overdoses cause more deaths annually than AIDS during the peak of that epidemic and even more than the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan combined. And, without treatment, the numbers of people dying from opioid-related causes will continue to increase.

A program, “Responding to the National Opioid Crisis,”  at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting will examine the opioid epidemic, ways to address the problem and what lawyers can do to help.

The program will take place on Aug. 10 at the San Francisco Marriott in the Yerba Buena Salons 4-6 from 10-11:30 a.m. Program panelists include moderator David Hoffman, former inspector general and co-leader of Sidley’s white collar investigations practice team, Chicago, IL; Dr. Susan R. Bailey, president-elect, American Medical Association, Fort Worth, TX; and Anne McGinness Kearse, Motley Rice LLC, Mount Pleasant, SC.

“Unless and until policymakers focus on removing barriers to high-quality, evidence-based care for substance use disorders — and removing barriers to comprehensive, multidisciplinary, multimodal pain care — this epidemic will not end,” Dr. Bailey said. “The good news is that we know that there are policy and clinical interventions that work and have a direct impact on saving lives and improving care.”

Lawyers have had a significant role in responding to the opioid epidemic, unlike most other public health crises.

In recent years, there have been numerous local, state and federal governmental measures put in place to address the opioid problem, including an ever-increasing number of lawsuits to recover monetary damages from entities deemed responsible for manufacturing, marketing, distributing and selling prescription opioids.

In 2007, a decision by the U.S. Department of Justice brought criminal charges against Purdue Pharma for its allegedly misleading advertising of OxyContin, which resulted in the payment of $634.5 million in criminal and civil fines.

More recently, within months after President Donald J. Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency in December 2017, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation consolidated what now amounts to nearly 1,500 opioid-related cases into multidistrict litigation in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio.

The consolidated suits involve dozens of prescription drug manufacturers for misleading and aggressive marketing and advertising, distributors for shipping large amounts of opioids to wholesalers and retailers when distribution patterns suggested significant overprescribing; and against large retailers for “turning a blind eye” to overprescribing and the misuse of opioids by their customers. Representative plaintiffs include states, counties and local governments, Native American tribes, hospitals and third-party payers, among other individuals.

Over the next decade, experts forecast that opioids could kill over a half million more people, two-thirds from heroin and one-third from prescription pills, underscoring the importance of the legal profession’s role in responding to the crisis.

“Responding to the National Opioid Crisis” is sponsored by the Health Law Section and Senior Lawyers Division.