U.S. District Judge Dan Polster has ordered the Drug Enforcement Administration to provide data on opioid prescription sales throughout the nation. This order comes as part of the ongoing multidistrict litigation against pharmaceutical companies that allegedly played a major role in the country's opioid addiction crisis.
The order requires the DEA to produce detailed sales records on opioid-based medications between 2006 and 2014, as well as reports of “suspicious” orders and shipments. Judge Polster's recent order expands a recent ruling requiring the DEA to provide such data for six states (Alabama, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia) as the cases are prepared for trial – which he hopes to avoid.
In his current ruling, Judge Polster noted that the previous disclosure “has proved to be extremely informative” in determining which specific pharmaceutical companies bear potential liability. For example, the Kroger Company was a named defendant in an early opioid lawsuit filed by Cuyohoga County Ohio. However, information gleaned from DEA records exonerated the company, as Kroger had never sold opioid prescription in that county.
According to lead plaintiffs' attorney Paul Farrell Jr., DEA data will be particularly helpful in pinpointing retailers and distributors that contributed to the problem. “When we're looking at specific counties, that market share may shift a little bit with regard to the manufacturers, but it shifts dramatically with distributors,” he said.
Before now, the DEA has been resistant to releasing much of their data because of its own investigations and fears of compromising “corporate trade secrets.” Now, Judge Polster's ruling compels the agency to share its information with law enforcement as well as all parties to the litigation.
Plaintiffs allege that pharmaceutical companies engaged in aggressive marketing of opioid medications, exaggerating the benefits and minimizing the addiction risks. They also allege that distributors neglected to properly monitor and investigate suspicious orders.
From the beginning, Judge Polster, appointed by President Bill Clinton for the Northern District of Ohio, has faced a monumental task in presiding over the national opioid litigation. The MDL involves over 400 federal lawsuits, filed by city and county governments as well as Indian nations.
During the first hearing this past January, he ordered all litigants to ready themselves for settlement conferences and to plan on reaching a settlement within the year. Furthermore, he has stated that any settlement proposal must include “real solutions that will help abate the number of overdose deaths” – not just monetary payments to plaintiffs. Speaking to a reporter in his home town of Cleveland, Judge Polster, whose primary strength is mediation, said:
“Everyone shares some of the responsibility, and no one has done enough to abate it. That includes the manufacturers, the distributors, the pharmacies, the doctors, the federal government and state government, local governments, hospitals, third-party payers and individuals. The federal court is probably the least likely branch of government to try and tackle this, but candidly, the other branches of government, federal and state, have punted. So it's here.”