There can be no doubt that the dominant and most oft-debated legal issue affecting the practice of medicine today is the prescribing of controlled substances to patients for pain. At the forefront of the debate is the drug Oxycontin, a powerful opioid produced by the privately-held company Purdue Pharma. As we all know now, Oxycontin is dangerously addictive and prone to abuse. It is estimated that, since Oxycontin first came on the market in 1996, a staggering 200,000 people in the United States have died from overdoses involving prescription pain medications. As a result, federal, state and local governments have struggled to find ways to curb opioid abuse and prevent further catastrophe.
Traditionally, those governments have leaned on either state medical boards or criminal investigative authorities to police prescriptions of opioids, alleging that they are made without indication or to individuals who are clearly addicted or abusing the drugs. Both tactics focus on the prescribing physician as the culprit. In New York, there has been a huge uptick in physicians who have either had their medical licenses revoked or been disciplined in some manner in connection with allegations that their opioid prescription practices were not necessary or reckless. Likewise, we have seen an increasing number of criminal prosecutions by the United States Department of Justice in various districts around the state, which have resulted in significant penalties and incarceration. In response, physicians have argued that they are merely being treated as scapegoats and that their treatments are thoughtfully tailored to deal with patients’ subjective complaints.
On a different course, it is a recent wave of civil lawsuits that have been commenced by numerous state and local governments that have garnered increased attention. Specifically, lawsuits have been filed against Purdue Pharma and its individual principals, effectively bringing to light the role of the drug manufacturer in the opioid crisis. In these lawsuits, it is alleged that for years Purdue Pharma directed misled physicians and patients for years about the dangers of opioids, especially their proclivity for being abused. The lawsuits also allege that Pursue Pharma initially advised physicians that Oxycontin could not be abused and that the risk of addiction for patients was “less than one percent.” Also, at issue are Purdue Pharma’s concerted marketing efforts to provide financial incentives for physicians to prescribe its drugs.
It will be interesting to see how the Courts deal with the role of the opioid manufacturer in determining culpability. We will watch these cases closely and provide updates as they progress. If you have any questions about this or any other legal matter, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.