Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) wants to give Maine’s attorney general the legal teeth to investigate and potentially levy civil penalties against drug manufacturers that have downplayed the addictiveness of the opioids they have sold.
On Tuesday, Jackson introduced legislation that would establish a civil violation for drug companies who have misled doctors into over-prescribing opioids to their patients.
It would also make companies liable for civil penalties for distributing opioids at amounts determined to be “not medically reasonable,” or for failing to report those unreasonable orders to the state.
“This bill is about banning the very practice that allowed the opioid crisis to spin out of control,” Jackson told members of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which will vet the bill.
“It was all done in the name of greed,” he continued. “They lied about the risk of addiction. They lied about its appeal to those with substance use disorder, and they pushed medical professionals to prescribe higher doses. They did this knowing the consequence would be in lives, and then embarked on a campaign to blame the victims.”
His bill directs any fees and penalties obtained by the state to go into a dedicated fund which state lawmakers could later use for opioid interventions.
‘Mainers aren’t sources of revenue for the richest companies in the world’
Jackson also wants to make drug companies’ liability in Maine retroactive to 1985 — though whether the attorney general’s office will be able to look that far back will be determined by the committee and its legal advisors.
“I do think it’s something that maybe you ought to look at,” he told committee members.
If Jackson’s proposal becomes law, it could potentially give Maine the legal means to pursue punitive action against bad corporate actors in the way that New York Attorney General Letitia James has. Last month, James filed what she describes as the “most extensive” lawsuit against opioid manufactures to date. The lawsuit is against several companies, including the company behind OxyContin, Purdue Pharma, as well as its owners, the Sackler family.
New York is suing the manufacturers on the grounds that they misled consumers about the addictive nature of opioids. The Sackler family is alleged to have directed efforts to boost sales by calling for increased sales representatives’ visits to doctors and prescribers, while continuing to claim OxyContin had a lower abuse liability than other opioids — even after paying $2.7 million in 2009 in settlements to the families of people harmed by their drug.
New York’s lawsuit also says Purdue encouraged the sale of opioids that were medically unnecessary.
Yesterday, for the first time, the federal government filed criminal charges against another pharmaceutical company, Rochester Drug Cooperative, and two of its former executives, for an alleged conspiracy to illegally distribute tens of millions of doses of oxycodone and pharmaceutical fentanyl.
“For too long these opioid companies and their allies have largely escaped liability,” Jackson told the Judiciary Committee. “Mainers in pain aren’t sources of revenue for the richest companies in the world.”
But determining what constitutes a “medically reasonable” amount of opioids that can be dispensed may be a challenge for the committee. That standard is not currently defined in Maine law. With nothing on statute, any lawsuits looking to establish drug manufacturer irresponsibility may be difficult to prove.
Maine runs a statewide database, the Prescription Monitoring Program, which allows doctors to see when their patients have been prescribed opioids in the past, but the system is not currently being used to spot unreasonable orders from drug manufacturers.
A per-pill tax on opioid manufacturers
In a separate piece of legislation, Jackson is also attempting to create a dedicated fund for the prevention and treatment of opioid use disorder that would be operated by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.
The fund would come from a new tax that would be paid by drug manufacturers that sell opioid painkillers in Maine. The tax would be levied based on the strength of the opioid, assessing a fee of $0.02 for every Morphine Milligram Equivalent, or MME, on every pill containing opioids dispensed in the state. Earlier this month, a similar tax in Delaware moved closer to becoming law.
In terms of Maine’s funding of treatment and prevention, “We just haven’t done nearly enough,” Jackson told Beacon. “Those pharmaceutical companies that caused the problem, they should pay a minimum to help us establish treatment.”
Governor Janet Mills’ proposed two-year budget dedicates $5.5 million in one-time spending towards fighting the state’s opioid crisis.
(Photo: Senate President Troy Jackson speaking to state Rep. Scott Cuddy at the State House. | Patricia McMurray)