Hundreds of cities and counties have sued Big Pharma for its alleged role in the opioid crisis, and while attorneys have met in Cleveland to discuss a potential settlement, Sen. Bernie Sanders is pushing for more action from Congress.
In a letter to Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions chair Sen. Lamar Alexander, Sanders drew comparisons to Big Tobacco. He said it's time for Congress to "summon that courage" it used when it forced tobacco CEOs to testify under oath back in 1994, a Congressional hearing that he pointed out eventually led to a $246 billion settlement between states and the companies.
Sanders' effort comes days after more than a hundred lawyers met in Cleveland to discuss a global settlement to more than 200 lawsuits from cities and counties, according to CBS News. Part of the talks include a push by the plaintiffs to remove ultra-high-dose opioid products from the market, the publication reports.
In a court filing Friday, Judge Daniel Polster, who's overseeing the negotiations, wrote that the meeting on Jan. 31 was "productive" and that he has "decided to continue settlement discussions covering both economic and non-economic issues."
Now, both sides are to select six attorneys each for future discussions. The next settlement conference is scheduled for March 6 in Cleveland.
While details about the potential size of a settlement have not been made public, New York City which last month joined the list of those seeking damages, wants $500 million in reimbursement for itself. City leadership said opioid overdoses caused more deaths in New York City than homicides and car accidents combined in 2016.
According to Sanders, the cost of the opioid crisis to the U.S. is running at $78 billion every year and results in tens of thousands of deaths every year. It didn't "happen in a vacuum," he added.
"Thanks to the work of many investigative journalists, we know that pharmaceutical companies lied about the addictive impacts of the drugs," Sanders wrote. "In other words, they knew how dangerous these products were, but refused to tell doctors and patients."
"We also know that the companies and distributors teamed up to flood small towns with far more pills than they could ever need in a lifetime," the senator added.
Now is the time for Alexander's committee to push for more information from the pharmaceutical industry, Sanders believes. For his part, he plans to introduce legislation that will seek to put an end to "illegal marketing and distribution practices" for opioids, "create public accountability" for companies and executives, and force reimbursement for the costs of the crisis.
In addition to the state and county lawsuits, Sen. Claire McCaskill has opened an investigation into opioid marketing from pharma companies, as have attorneys general from a majority of states. State attorneys general are not under the Cleveland court's jurisdiction and are participating in the settlement talks voluntarily, Judge Polster wrote.