Recently unsealed documents from the state’s lawsuit against Purdue Pharma have shed some light on the machinations that placed Washington in an opioid crisis. They also have highlighted the need for action from the state attorney general.
Among the revelations is that Vancouver nurse practitioner Kelly Bell prescribed more than $1.5 million worth of OxyContin in a six-month span of 2008. According to court documents, Bell was aggressively targeted by Purdue, which manufactures OxyContin, in an effort to get her to prescribe the drug while downplaying the risk of addiction. “In short,” the documents state, “Ms. Bell would respond to the abuse of opioids by prescribing more opioids.”
The issue is much larger than one nurse practitioner in Vancouver (who in November 2017 lost her license to prescribe narcotic pain medication), but it exemplifies how pharmaceutical companies ply the system while placing profits ahead of community health. Because of that, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson has filed a lawsuit against Purdue for its role in fueling opioid addiction.
“These newly unsealed details further illustrate the mechanics of Purdue’s massive deception,” Ferguson said. “Purdue ignored warning signs and their own studies while targeting high-prescribing doctors in Washington state. It’s time they are held accountable for the devastation this epidemic has caused.”
Purdue had been warned. In 2007, the company admitted to misleading doctors and the public about the addictiveness of the drug and pledged to halt the practice. But the newly available documents — ordered unsealed by a King County Superior Court judge — indicate that the company doubled its sales force in Washington and intensified pressure upon health care providers to prescribe OxyContin.
The veracity of those claims remains to be hashed out in court, but the impact of the crisis is inarguable. Opioid overdoses claimed more than 700 lives in Washington in 2016, and more than half of those were traced to prescription drugs, according to the state Department of Health. More people in Washington were killed by opioids than by car crashes.
Meanwhile, government officials claim the crisis has exacerbated the state’s homeless crisis and strained spending on social services. Because of that, Everett, Tacoma and Seattle all have become party to lawsuits against Purdue.
It is tempting to blame the victims in overdose cases, to suggest that addicts are responsible for their own actions. But if a trusted health care provider — at the urging of a pharmaceutical representative — prescribes a drug and downplays the risk of addiction, accountability at the top is required. As Gov. Jay Inslee said when Ferguson filed suit against Purdue in September: “Most of our health care professionals want to do the right thing for patients, but some corporations sought to boost their bottom line to peddle opioids on false premises, which, in great part, created this crisis.”
At the heart of the issue is a dismissive attitude by the company. According to the previously redacted documents, a Purdue representative reported to the company in 2008 that the patients of an Everett doctor are “all 20-year-old thugs with diamonds in their ears and $350 tennis shoes who always pay cash.” The suggestion that it is OK for a multibillion-dollar company to prey upon people who fit a certain stereotype is patently offensive.
Washington’s opioid crisis has exacted an extreme human and financial toll. Ferguson’s effort to demand accountability is warranted.