Opioid Lawsuits Target Alleged Root Cause Of The Addiction Epidemic

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter
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Officials in West Virginia are launching a lawsuit targeting a hospital accreditation group they allege spread “misinformation” on behalf of drug makers that helped ignite the addiction crisis.

Four cities in the state joined together last week to file a class-action lawsuit against the Joint Commission, previously the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, a non-profit which provides accreditation for hospitals nationally who meet their standards for care. Officials from the towns of Huntington, Charleston, Kenova, and Ceredo allege the Joint Commission spread “misinformation” produced by pharmaceutical companies that greatly downplayed the risk for addiction from opioid painkillers, reports STAT.

In 2001, the Joint Commission network made up roughly 80 percent of all hospitals in the U.S., which accounted for roughly 90 percent of hospital beds in the country, according to research published by the National Institutes of Health in 2014.

“Opioids are killing a generation of West Virginians,” Ceredo Mayor Paul Billups told STAT. “It’s had a tremendous impact. It appears that a number of medical providers were relying on directives from the Joint Commission that caused an increase on the number of opioids on the market.”

Medical professionals say a shift in the 1990s to “institutionalize” pain management opened the doors for pharmaceutical companies to encourage the mass prescribing of painkillers by doctors. As the medical profession moved towards a focus on pain management and reduction, the Joint Commission adopted new standards for treating pain in patients. (RELATED: How One Painkiller Ignited The Addiction Epidemic)

The standards, implemented in January 2001, downplayed the risks of opioids and served to encourage doctors who wanted to remain in good standing to prescribe the drugs for pain treatment, whether acute or chronic.

If hospitals wanted accreditation and doctors wanted positive journal reviews and recommendations, they had to bend to the new standards.

Purdue Pharma, makers of the painkiller OxyContin, was one of two companies that worked with the Joint Commission to fund educational materials and programs to teach the medical community how to treat pain. Purdue Pharma was the only company the Joint Commission allowed to distribute educational materials and videos on pain management.

In the year following this initial education push, doctors wrote 11 million more prescriptions for opioids, reports KevinMD.

Critics say the coordinated elevation of pain management treatment within the medical profession by these organizations primed the system that would eventually devolve into the current epidemic of addiction.

TheDCNF reached out to the Joint Commission for comment but did not receive a reply at the time of publication.

A representative of the Joint Commission told STAT that the organization is “deeply troubled by a lawsuit that contains blatantly false accusations that have been thoroughly debunked.” The Joint Commission has previously responded to criticism by “encouraging our critics to look at our exact standards, along with the historical context of our standards.”

Purdue Pharma denies allegations of complicity in the opioid epidemic and says they are committed to curbing rates of opioid abuse.

“We are deeply troubled by the opioid crisis and we are dedicated to being part of the solution,” a company spokesman previously told The Daily Caller News Foundation in response to a lawsuit filed by the attorney general of New Jersey. “Although our products account for approximately 2 percent of the total opioid prescriptions, as a company, we’ve distributed the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain, developed three of the first four FDA-approved opioid medications with abuse-deterrent properties and partner with law enforcement to ensure access to naloxone.”

President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a “public health emergency” Oct. 26, giving states hit hard by opioid addiction flexibility on how they direct federal resources to combat rising drug deaths.

Data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse released Sept. 7 predicts that the addiction epidemic in America will continue to deteriorate, pushing drug deaths to an estimated 71,600 in 2017. If the estimates prove accurate, 2017 will be the second year in a row that drug deaths surpass U.S. casualties from the Vietnam War.

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