Opioid Makers Sued for Premium Hikes in First-of-Kind Cases

(Bloomberg) -- Makers and distributors of the prescription opioids that triggered a U.S. public health crisis are responsible for a rise in health-insurance premiums, according to first-of-their-kind lawsuits filed in five states.

The suits open another front in the burgeoning litigation against drugmakers including Purdue Pharma Inc. and the Janssen Pharmaceuticals unit of Johnson & Johnson and distributors such as McKesson Corp. and Cardinal Health Inc. The suits, which seek unspecified damages, seek to represent people who bought health insurance policies in those states since 1996.

"All of the defendants in this action share responsibility for creating, sustaining and prolonging the opioid epidemic" in pursuit of corporate revenue, lead plaintiff Edward Grace alleges in a complaint filed Wednesday in Boston.

Similar cases were brought in New Jersey, New York, Illinois and California, said plaintiffs’ lawyer Travis Lenkner of Chicago’s Keller Lenkner law firm. He said a group of firms he’s working with consider these to be the first such cases over insurance premiums.

The companies are accused of conspiring, racketeering and creating a public nuisance. Opioid abuse has killed more than 350,000 people since 1999, while costing private businesses and American governments $500 billion annually.

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Opioid manufacturers, including Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. and AmerisourceBergen Corp., were also named as defendants in the Boston suit.

The drug manufacturers said they’ve tried to address the crisis.

"Our actions in the marketing and promotion of these medicines were appropriate and responsible," Janssen Pharmaceuticals said in an emailed statement. "The allegations made against our company are baseless and unsubstantiated."

Purdue Pharma is "deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis, and we are dedicated to being part of the solution," said Bob Josephson, a company spokesman.

Kristin Hunter Chasen, a spokeswoman for McKesson Corp., said the company is "deeply concerned" about the impact the opioid epidemic is having across the country. "We’ve offered a number of impactful policy solutions and support programs and partnerships that we believe can have a meaningful impact on this challenging issue, including the formation of a foundation dedicated to combating the crisis."

A representative of Teva declined to comment while AmerisourceBergen didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

About 500 cities, counties and states have sued the same companies, seeking to hold them responsible for increased costs of crime, incarceration and treatment. Most of the federal suits have been aggregated for pretrial proceedings before a U.S. judge in Cleveland.

The Massachusetts case is Grace v. Purdue Pharma, 18-cv-10857, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston). The New Jersey case is Sardella v. Purdue Pharma, 18-cv-8706, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey.

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