New Hampshire is latest state to sue OxyContin manufacturer

  • FILE - This Feb. 19, 2013, file photo, shows OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. Prescription painkillers should not be a first-choice for treating common ailments like back pain and arthritis, according to new federal guidelines designed to reshape how doctors prescribe drugs like OxyContin and Vicodin. Amid an epidemic of addiction and abuse tied to these powerful opioids drugs, the CDC is urging general doctors to try physical therapy, exercise and over-the-counter pain medications before turning to painkillers for chronic pain. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

Monitor staff
Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The attorney general’s office is up against “a virtual army of lawyers,” in its suit against Purdue Pharma, the multibillion-dollar company that makes the drug OxyContin.

But thanks to a recent ruling from the state Supreme Court, the AG’s Consumer Protection and Antitrust Bureau’s chief, James Boffetti, will not be facing the army alone. Last month, the court allowed the attorney general to hire outside lawyers in the fight, paving the way for the 100-page civil lawsuit to be filed against Purdue on Tuesday.

In an interesting turn of events, it was Attorney General Gordon MacDonald who made the argument in 2015 against the state using outside lawyers. Before his appointment to lead the state’s Justice Department this year, MacDonald was the lead attorney representing Purdue. As the sitting attorney general, he has recused himself from the case.

Boffetti said the extra two lawyers for the prosecution are critical to the state’s ability to handle the massive case, which accuses the drug manufacturer of deceptively marketing OxyContin, an addictive opioid painkiller, in the state.

The lawsuit specifically accuses Purdue Pharma of minimizing the drug’s risk of addiction, overstating its effectiveness, and failing to report suspicious prescribers. It’s the latest in a string of lawsuits by state, county and local governments accusing prescription opioid manufacturers of fraud and deceptive marketing.

A spokesman for Cranbury, N.J.-based Pharma said the company vigorously denies the allegations, though it shares New Hampshire’s concerns about the opioid crisis and is committed to finding solutions.

Were it not for the two extra lawyers – Brian Bowcut and Linda Singer – Boffetti said his office would be unable to sift through the millions of documents a case like this one produces – as well as keep up with other duties his office must handle.

“For the defense to say the attorney general’s office doesn’t need assistance, they just don’t know what they’re talking about,” Boffetti said. “I encourage any one of them to come down to our office and see what we do on a regular basis.”

The attorney general’s office in New Hampshire has been investigating half a dozen drug companies and their marketing practices for two years. During that time, the opioid problem has continued to grow. Nearly 500 people died of overdoses in 2016 – a nearly tenfold increase since 2000.

In 2007, Purdue and three of its executives pleaded guilty to criminal charges for deceptive conduct, but the New Hampshire lawsuit alleges that it has continued the same practices. While the company has touted its coordination with law enforcement, in New Hampshire it provided a list of suspicious providers only when asked specifically by the state’s board of medicine, the lawsuit states. And the names all came from the board’s investigations or media reports, not from Purdue’s sales data or information about its marketing visits.

Purdue also told prescribers that patients who seemed to be misusing opioids were experiencing “pseudoaddiction,” the lawsuit alleges. The company’s marketing materials suggested that “illicit drug use and deception” might reflect untreated pain rather than addiction, thus encouraging physicians with potentially addicted patients to respond by prescribing more opioids, the state argues.

Boffetti compared the case to 2013 ExxonMobil verdict, which ultimately resulted in the state being granted more than $235 million to deal with water pollution caused by the gasoline additive MTBE. He noted that both cases deal with significant public health crises – and require outside help to manage.

“The attorney general’s office is small; this bureau is small. We don’t have the resources to take on these massive cases,” Boffetti said. “The MTBE case resulted in a substantial payment for the state, and it wouldn’t have been possible to put on a case like that without outside counsel.”

Boffetti said his office has nine lawyers, five paralegals and three investigators spread out among its various bureaus. Two of those lawyers, including himself, are dedicated to consumer protection cases like the Pharma case as well as multi-state cases. Those staffers are also responsible for fielding and dealing with the 4,000 written complaints and 7,000 consumer hotline calls the bureau fields each year.

Compare that, he said, to the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, which he said was able to field 40-50 lawyers alone when dealing with the subprime mortgage crisis years ago.

“That was me and another lawyer taking on all those cases,” Bofetti said of the mortgage crisis.

“I’m proud of the work this place does,” he added. “Everyone works extremely hard, but we could not take this case on without outside help.”

The New Hampshire case comes less than two months after Missouri’s attorney general sued Purdue and two other pharmaceutical companies. Ohio’s attorney general filed a similar lawsuit against five companies in May, and three district attorneys and the guardians of a baby born dependent on drugs filed a lawsuit in June against three companies in Tennessee.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @ActualCAndrews.)