US drugmakers, distributors under federal opioid probe

Photo: AP Protest against Big Pharma making millions pushing painkillers near the Harvard University in Cambridge, 12 April, 2019.

At least a half-dozen companies that make or distribute prescription opioid painkillers are facing a federal criminal investigation of their roles in a nationwide addiction and overdose crisis. Many activists have called for drug companies to not only be sued but also face criminal charges. An investigation is a step in that direction, though it is not clear when or whether any criminal charges might be filed.

The Wall Street Journal first reported the investigation Tuesday, citing unnamed sources familiar with the probe. The newspaper said drugmakers Amneal Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson, Mallinckrodt and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries had received grand-jury subpoenas from the US Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn, along with drug distributors AmerisourceBergen and McKesson.

Most of the companies have disclosed federal subpoenas related to opioids in filings this year with the US Securities and Exchange Commission. All the companies except New Jersey-based generic drugmaker Amneal are also defendants in more than 2,000 civil lawsuits filed by state and local governments alleging their drug promotion and distribution practices contributed to an opioid crisis that has been linked to more than 400,000 deaths in the US since 2000. The deaths include those related to prescription opioids as well as illegal ones such as heroin and illicitly made fentanyl.

Johnson & Johnson and Teva both said in statements that their drug monitoring practices complied with the law. One of the key claims in those lawsuits is that companies violated the Controlled Substances Act by failing to report and stop shipments of suspicious drug orders.

In two cases this year, criminal versions of those claims surfaced in cases involving smaller distribution companies. In New York, Rochester Drug Cooperative paid $20 million and entered into a deferred prosecution agreement. And in Ohio, Miami-Luken and two of its executives face similar charges - which the now-defunct company denies.

The company most associated with opioids, OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, has also suggested that it could face federal charges. In a bankruptcy court filing laying out its proposed settlement of lawsuits, the company says one requirement is that all federal liability would have to be resolved.

A trial would have examined allegations that the makers of the prescription painkillers and pharmaceutical distributors pushed billions of pills into communities without due care over two decades, making it excessively easy for patients to become addicted and creating a permanent demand. The companies reaped tens of billions of dollars in profits while overdose deaths soared above 400,000 over two decades - more than 70,000 in 2017 alone. Plaintiffs had amassed large amounts of evidence showing that the companies knew they were fomenting an epidemic of addiction.

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