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Suing Wholesalers Won't Help Tennessee Solve Opioid Crisis

We do not need to review statistics to tell us we have too many opioid overdose deaths in Tennessee or that families and communities are suffering from opioid dependency. The crisis is real. But frivolous lawsuits are not the answer.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse believes the genesis of the opioid addiction problem came when pharmaceutical manufacturers reassured the medical community that prescription opioid pain relievers were not addictive. Consequently, health care providers increased rates of opioid prescriptions, putting more pills into American homes. Extra pills were diverted from medicine cabinets and misused. And so it began.

The opioid crisis is taking a serious toll here in East Tennessee. Many of the highest rates of opioid addictions and opioid-related deaths in America are in the rural areas surrounding Knoxville, including parts of Roane, Hamblen and Campbell counties.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers have been sued off and on for years, and those lawsuits have produced some damning information about drugs such as OxyContin. However, in the past few months a new kind of lawsuit has emerged and the result could be a major distraction from genuine solutions.

Some wealthy trial lawyers from West Virginia concocted a feeble legal theory against wholesale distributors, the companies that specialize in the logistics and transportation of medical supplies and prescription medicine. These companies do not sell directly to the public, nor do they write prescriptions or market opioids. However, they do sustain good-paying jobs for thousands of families across the country.

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From left Knoxville Police Department Chief David Rausch, Knox Health Department director Dr. Martha Buchanan and BlueCross BlueShield CMO Dr. Andrea Willis respond to a question at the Tennessee Opioid Epidemic Forum at West High School Tuesday, March 28, 2017. (Photo: CAITIE MCMEKIN/NEWS SENTINEL)

Court records in McDowell County, West Virginia, indicate that to win in court, plaintiffs suing wholesale distributors will have to either identify suspicious orders from suspicious pharmacies themselves – something none of the 200-plus cases have ever accomplished – or force each and every pharmacy to present their own defense at their own expense. In other words, small businesses that have been accused of no crime will have to prove to elected officials that they were not in a secret black market. It’s outrageous.

A wacky cast of characters are pushing lawsuits in the hopes that their sheer number will force a settlement, of which they will be entitled to 30 percent, plus expenses. They get richer, communities get their scraps and the addiction crisis continues.

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Nancy Stallard Harr, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee, announces the district's participation in the Department of Justice's Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit. (Photo: SAUL YOUNG/NEWS SENTINEL)

Allowing trial lawyers to exploit the opioid crisis to make a quick buck by inventing scapegoats that divert the focus from the real problem is only going to delay the arrival of workable solutions that save lives while costing local businesses big bucks to defend themselves from lawsuits dreamed up by out-of-state lackluster legal thinkers.

Every credible authority indicates that lawmakers, doctors, pharmacists, law enforcement agencies and the pharmaceutical supply chain must work together to promote addiction treatment, re-educate prescribers and interdict black market diversion. Let’s turn away from get-rich-quick lawsuits and towards meaningful, lifesaving solutions.

Drew Johnson is an East Tennessee native who founded the Tennessee Center for Policy Research and now serves as a senior scholar at the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

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