Newly unsealed sections of a lawsuit brought by Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson against Purdue Pharma show how the company partnered with local doctors to increase prescriptions for a highly addictive prescription painkiller.
Years after Purdue Pharma was ordered to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for misleading regulators and the public about the risks of its popular painkiller OxyContin, the company continued efforts to heavily market the addictive opiate, nearly doubling its sales force in Washington, according to a newly unsealed section of a complaint filed last fall by the state Attorney General’s Office.
The document, made public Friday, reveals new details about Purdue’s marketing practices, including how it partnered with local physicians to boost prescriptions of its highly addictive pain killer, according to Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
Those and other actions helped increase the flood of prescription opiates distributed throughout the state, Ferguson’s office said. In 2011 alone, Washington physicians prescribed more than 112 million daily doses of prescription opioids, according to the AG’s office, about 15 a day for every resident in the state.
“These newly unsealed details further illustrate the mechanics of Purdue’s massive deception,” Ferguson said in a statement. The company “ignored warning signs and their own studies while targeting high-prescribing doctors in Washington state.”
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The lawsuit, filed by Ferguson in September, accuses Purdue of downplaying the risks associated with OxyContin, alleging that the company contributed to it being overprescribed by doctors.
The lawsuit is one of dozens filed by cities and states against the pharmaceutical giant that has been a focal point in the national opioid epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control, opioids killed more than 42,000 people in 2016. About 40 percent involved prescription opioids. In Washington, prescriptions accounted for more than 60 percent of the nearly 700 opioid-related deaths in 2016, according to preliminary data from the state health department.
Purdue representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a previous statement about the lawsuit, the company said:
“We are deeply troubled by the opioid crisis and we are dedicated to being part of the solution. As a company grounded in science, we must balance patient access to FDA-approved medicines, while working collaboratively to solve this public health challenge. We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense.”
Sections of the Washington state complaint recently unsealed by a King County Superior Court judge show that Purdue nearly doubled its Washington sales force between 2009 and 2010. The next year, Purdue sales representatives logged nearly 34,000 visits to Washington state prescription-drug providers. The company also recruited local doctors into what Ferguson’s lawsuit says were deceptive marketing efforts.
Ferguson’s lawsuit seeks to force Purdue to forfeit profits from sales of OxyContin in Washington, where abuse of prescription drugs and heroin have caused about 700 deaths a year since 2006. More people died in the state from opioid-related complications than from car accidents or firearms, according to the lawsuit.
Ferguson also accuses Purdue of using manipulative marketing practices to convince patients and doctors alike that, despite contrary studies, prescription painkillers are effective at treating chronic pain and carry a low of risk addiction.
In 2007, the company and some of its executives pleaded guilty to misleading regulators, doctors and the public about the addictive qualities of OxyContin and agreed to pay some $600 million in fines and other payments. That same year the company agreed to pay $19.5 million to settle a lawsuit brought by Washington and 25 other states over the same issue, entering into a consent decree to refrain from minimizing the risks of the drug.
But Ferguson said the company continued its aggressive marketing despite those assurances.
The unsealed complaint names several local physicians recently disciplined for failing to follow state guidelines for prescribing powerful painkillers.
According to Ferguson’s lawsuit, Purdue representatives looked the other way when confronted with red flags in their interactions with the providers, contributing to the rise of so-called “pill mills.”
One physician named in the lawsuit, Donald Dillinger, wrote nearly 10,000 prescriptions for OxyContin between 2007 and 2016 — 26 times more than the average local prescriber, according to the attorney general’s office.
Court documents indicate that Purdue recruited Dillinger, who ran an Everett pain-management clinic, to participate in its promotions of OxyContin and other efforts designed to persuade other doctors to increase prescriptions of the drug.
In 2016, health authorities charged Dillinger with violating state health-care standards, alleging he focused on prescribing controlled substances for several patients without paying appropriate attention to the underlying causes of their pain. The Washington Medical Quality Assurance Commission later fined him $5,000 and limited his ability to prescribe opioid-based painkillers.
In 2008, Delbert Whetstone, who operated a separate Everett pain-management clinic, wrote 1,000 OxyContin prescriptions in a six-month span. A Purdue sales representative raised concerns in an internal report that Whetstone’s patients weren’t seeking the medication for personal use, but the company did not report its concerns to federal regulators until 2011, according to the Attorney General’s Office.
Whetstone eventually pleaded guilty to charges he prescribed controlled substances without a legitimate purpose, and he was sentenced to three years in federal prison.
Ferguson’s lawsuit is one of several lodged against Purdue and other pharmaceutical-industry giants over the nation’s ongoing opiate epidemic.
Last September the city of Seattle filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court against Purdue, Teva Pharmaceuticals and several other prescription drugmakers.