Judge: Ferguson’s suit against one of the nation’s largest opioid manufacturers will go forward

Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s lawsuit against OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma over the state’s devastating opioid epidemic will continue, a King County judge ruled today, rejecting Purdue’s request to dismiss the case.

Ferguson’s lawsuit accuses Purdue, one of the nation’s largest opioid manufacturers, of fueling the opioid epidemic in Washington state, embarking on a massive deceptive marketing campaign and convincing doctors and the public that their drugs are effective for treating chronic pain and have a low risk of addiction, contrary to overwhelming evidence.

This deceptive marketing resulted in the deaths of Washingtonians and devastation to Washington families.

Today, King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Moore denied Purdue’s motion to dismiss the state’s lawsuit, allowing the case to move forward. Washington is the third state to defeat attempts by Purdue to dismiss cases over its opioids, joining South Carolina and Oklahoma.

“It’s time for Purdue to answer for the devastation its opioids have caused Washington families,” Ferguson said. “Purdue ignored the consequences of its massive deception. I look forward to our day in court.”

Ferguson’s lawsuit contends Purdue conducted an uncontrolled experiment on the American public without any reliable clinical evidence that opioids are effective at treating chronic pain. To doctors and patients, Purdue consistently downplayed the risks of addiction from long-term use and deceptively represented opioids as safe for treating long-term chronic pain.

Purdue falsely claims that opioids improve long-term function, have a low addiction risk that can be managed or prevented and that increased doses of opioids do not pose significant additional risks to patients.

Purdue’s deception yielded the company billions of dollars in profit nationwide from its opioid drugs. Ferguson’s lawsuit seeks to force Purdue to forfeit the Washington portion of those profits.

Judge Moore did rule that, per a 2007 consent judgment, claims prior to 2007 could not proceed, which does not affect the bulk of the claims or the substance of the case. The court confirmed that evidence of prior misconduct could be admissible for other purposes. The court asked for an amended complaint reflecting this in the next 30 days.

Purdue’s marketing to high prescribers in Washington

Purdue sales staff kept detailed records of prescriptions in Washington by prescriber, drug strength, quantity and other factors. Purdue then used that data to aggressively market its drugs to the highest prescribers in the state, Ferguson’s lawsuit alleges.

Washington state medical boards sanctioned some of these prescribers for failing to follow rules related to opioid prescriptions and putting patients at risk. The lawsuit alleges that, in several cases, Purdue salespeople ignored red flags and continued to target these providers with sales pitches.

In addition to targeting high-volume doctors, Purdue identified nurse practitioners and physician assistants as “a high value target, particularly due to impact on primary care” and shifted its marketing strategy to emphasize these prescribers.  From 2014 to 2015, Purdue tracked the 18 percent increase in prescribing by nurse practitioners and physician assistants. Purdue responded with increased marketing and attention on this group of prescribers.

Washington’s epidemic

Prescriptions and sales of opioids in Washington skyrocketed more than 500 percent between 1997 and 2011. In 2011, at the peak of overall sales in Washington, more than 112 million daily doses of all prescription opioids were dispensed in the state — enough for a 16-day supply for every woman, man and child in Washington. More than 18.2 million daily doses of oxycodone were distributed in Washington in 2015.

Between 2009 and 2014, Washington saw a 60 percent increase in opioid-related hospital stays, the fourth-highest increase in the nation, according to a June 2017 study by the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality.

Ferguson’s work on the opioid epidemic

In June of 2017, the Attorney General’s Office hosted a summit on Washington’s opioid epidemic in partnership with the Washington State Patrol and the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

report developed by the organizations after the summit included a range of recommendations, three of which became the subject of Attorney General Request legislation in the recent 2018 legislative session. Proposals to limit first-time prescriptions of opioids, and to require that doctors check the state’s Prescription Monitoring Program database for evidence of misuse or dangerous prescribing patterns before prescribing opioids failed to pass the Legislature.

A third successful bill gives the Attorney General’s Office Medicaid Fraud Control Unit authority to issue search warrants and make arrests in Medicaid fraud cases, including those involving opioid misuse.