Justice Department steps in to back hundreds of cities, counties suing opioid makers

The Department of Justice said it will file a statement of interest backing hundreds of opioid lawsuits. (Pixabay)

Opioid makers are already facing hundreds of lawsuits from cities and counties, plus an investigation by dozens of states, for their alleged role in the United States' deadly addiction epidemic. Now, the federal government is backing those efforts.  

On Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Department of Justice will file a "statement of interest" in the lawsuits. Such a filing would enable the government to recoup a portion of any potential settlement, according to Reuters. 

Drug companies named in the lawsuits are Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Allergan and Endo International. Three large distributors—McKesson, AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health—are also named as defendants. 

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The companies are alleged to have used "false, deceptive, and unfair marketing of opioid drugs," Sessions said at a press conference on Tuesday. "The hardworking taxpayers of this country deserve to be compensated by any whose illegal activity contributed to these costs," he added.

The cases have been piling up for years, and earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Daniel Polster wrote in a court filing that the sides had a "productive" settlement conference. The next meeting is set for March 6. According to court records, the multidistrict litigation includes more than 450 cases.

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A Purdue spokesperson said the company is "fully engaged in the process that Judge Polster has set in action to explore meaningful solutions to the crisis of prescription and illicit opioid abuse addressed in the Attorney General’s statement."

Teva declined to comment, and representatives for the other drug companies didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

John Gray, the CEO of the organization that represents distributors, said in a statement that the companies "share the common goal" with Sessions to end the epidemic, adding that the distributors can't do it alone. He called for "a new level of collaboration among supply chain stakeholders, law enforcement and the broader community."

Aside from the statement of interest, Sessions said the DOJ is forming a task force and hiring a top prosecutor to help with the issue. He said that Mary Daly, an experienced federal prosecutor, will join the DOJ as director of its opioid enforcement and prevention efforts. 

The agency's task force will "focus in particular on targeting opioid manufacturers and distributors who have contributed to this epidemic," Sessions said. It'll also look at changes to laws and regulations that could help with the situation, and will seek to assist with the ongoing lawsuits.

As the epidemic has led to billions of dollars in expenses and tens of thousands of deaths, Congress has gotten involved as well. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., recently published the findings of an investigation showing that several drugmakers paid out more than $10 million to advocacy groups that backed wide use of the drugs and associated doctors.  

For his part, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., asked Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions chair Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., to hold a hearing focusing on pharma's role in the crisis. He asked Congress to "summon that courage" it used when it forced tobacco CEOs to testify under oath back in 1994, a hearing that he said eventually led to a $246 billion settlement between states and the companies. 

Editor's note: This story was updated with a statement from Purdue.