The opioid epidemic is one of the foremost public health crises of our time. Not surprisingly, it is commanding the pressing attention of our communities, politicians and industry groups.
As America pursues ways to stem the tide of its ongoing opioid epidemic, there also exists a groundswell to identify bad actors and hold them responsible. By bringing accountability to these bad actors, a well-intended and stated objective, at least for some, is to stem the tide of addiction and develop a financing mechanism to fund solutions to the problem.
Thus, there is now a rapidly multiplying volume of lawsuits filed against manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies and doctors who play some role in the supply chain of opioid-based medications. As to distributors, the plausibility of any of those suits is questionable, at best. And within these lawsuits rest those in which the logical basis goes beyond questionable and is just utterly confounding.
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One of the most egregious examples comes from plaintiff lawyers trying to pit hospitals against pharmaceutical distributors. These lawsuits, filed on behalf of hospitals, claim distributors failed to monitor the very shipments that physicians employed by health systems prescribed, as well as an alleged failure to monitor follow-up prescriptions by other prescribing doctors.
This alleged failure, litigants claim, enabled rogue doctors to prescribe opioids unchecked to the masses, leading to a surge of overdoses that then saddled hospitals with undue financial burden (from patients being uninsured or underinsured), as well as depleted medical resources and emergency room bandwidth.
The trial lawyers willfully overlook the simple truth that hospitals employ doctors (about 47 percent of doctors work for hospitals), who prescribe opioids when necessary and directly administer them. Among hospitalized nonsurgical patients, 51 percent are prescribed and administered opioids during their stay, while the majority of surgical patients also receive opioids.
In contrast, distributors such as AmerisourceBergen do nothing to drive the demand of opioid-based medicines. The role of the distributor is to provide efficiency in the marketplace by buying these medicines from manufacturers and then securely transporting them to pharmacies and hospitals — based on the orders these entities place — to ensure they are available to meet the needs of their patients.
That’s why it is confounding to see this recent attempt to litigate against distributors in search of financial compensation. It defies common sense for members of the pharmaceutical supply chain — all of who have unique responsibilities related to the prevention of controlled substance diversion — to address the opioid epidemic through litigation against one another.
Unfortunately, the contingency-compensated throngs of private trial lawyers who seek to make billions in opioid litigation perhaps are not relying on common sense to recruit prospective clients into these cases. In the end, the current legal environment has the potential to impact legitimate patients who may now have an increasingly difficult time accessing the medicines their health care providers are prescribing.
Furthermore — and worth noting — most opioid overdoses today do not occur from the prescription opioids that go through manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies and doctors. They happen most from synthetic drugs such as illicit fentanyl. So, any productive path forward to tackling the opioid epidemic must take that into account.
What we know today is that the opioid epidemic isn’t simply going away tomorrow. It’s a complex problem, and most health systems and health care providers are looking to collaborate on solutions to make sure opioids don’t end up in the wrong hands.
AmerisourceBergen and the AmerisourceBergen Foundation already work with a handful of hospitals to combat diversion and misuse of opioids, while helping to reduce accidental overdoses and increase access to recovery support services.
Focusing further on solutions such as these would have far greater benefit than lawyers looking for lucrative yet unwarranted paydays from drawing untenable logical bridges.
Gabe Weissman is senior vice president for communications at AmerisourceBergen, a wholesale pharmaceutical distributor.
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