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Opioid makers have raised insurance costs for North Carolinians, lawsuit claims

This file photo shows OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt.
This file photo shows OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. AP

A North Carolina man has filed a lawsuit against more than a dozen pharmaceutical companies, alleging that their targeted marketing and distribution of prescription opioids has directly led to higher insurance costs for North Carolinians.

Kevin Wilk of Wake County filed the lawsuit on Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

Wilk — who buys his health insurance from Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, according to the suit — is seeking class action status on behalf of himself and anyone or entity who purchased health insurance policies in North Carolina since 1996. The suit estimates that almost six million people in North Carolina are currently enrolled in private health insurance.

Wilk is represented by the Raleigh law firm Everett Gaskins Hancock LLP as well as firms in Arlington, Va., Chicago and New York.

The 94-page lawsuit accuses the defendants of violating North Carolina’s Unfair Trade Practices Act and the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act by “knowingly (making) material misstatements to physicians, consumers, and the general public” that it was “rare” that opioids could lead to addiction and that “doctors and patients could increase opioid dosages indefinitely without risk.”

These misstatements, according to the court filing, led to costly prescriptions — and then subsequent addiction treatments — which has caused every North Carolina buyer of private health insurance to pay “higher premiums, co-payments and deductibles.”

Between 2001 and 2014, North Carolinians spent 4.8 percent more per year on individual health insurance, increasing the total amount spent per person from $2,099 in 2001 to $3,859 in 2014, according to the suit.

The lawsuit names the following companies as defendants:

Purdue Pharma and several subsidiaries, which make and sell the drug OxyContin

Insys Therapeutics, which makes the drug Subsys

Cephalon, which makes the drugs Actiq and Fentora

Teva Pharmaceuticals, which markets and sells Cephalon products

Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, which makes the drug Duragesic

Endo Pharmaceuticals, which developed the drugs Percocet and Opana ER

Watson Laboratories, owner of Allergan, which makes the drugs Kadian and Norco

McKesson Corp., which distributes prescription opioids to retailers and providers

Cardinal Health, which also distributes prescription opioids.

AmerisourceBergen, another distributor

The lawsuit asks for a jury trial and for restitution of any money acquired by “unlawful, fraudulent, deceptive and unconscionable business practices” as well as punitive damages and any further relief required.

The suit alleges that these pharmaceutical companies were able to make billions of dollars by transforming the way doctors treated chronic pain. The companies were able to do this, the suit says, by “(targeting) susceptible prescribers, like family doctors, and vulnerable patient populations, like the elderly and veterans” and by “(tainting) the sources that doctors and patients relied upon for guidance, including treatment guidelines, medical education programs, medical conferences and seminars and scientific articles.”

This isn’t the first lawsuit to target prescription opioid makers to come out of North Carolina.

Earlier this year, state Attorney General Josh Stein filed a suit against Purdue Pharma for its marketing of painkillers, which the suit said fueled an opioid epidemic. Stein also filed a lawsuit against Insys Therapeutics in 2017 for its efforts to sale painkillers.

Lawsuits against prescription opioid makers and sellers have increased in recent years, many of them filed by cities and states in an attempt to confront a growing number of opioid addictions and overdoses. Since 1999, there have been more than 183,000 opioid-related deaths nationwide, the Wilk lawsuit states.

In North Carolina, more than 13,000 North Carolinians have died from opioid-related overdoses since 1999, and more than 19,000 North Carolinians have received opioid-related substance abuse treatment, according to the lawsuit from Stein.

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