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opioid crisis
April 17, 2019

A federal sting operation led to prosecutors charging 60 doctors, pharmacists, nurse practitioners, and other medical professionals for illegally prescribing opioids in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Alabama, and West Virginia. All told, 32 million pain pills were doled out illegally in the five states.

One Tennessee doctor alone, who the The Washington Post writes branded himself the "Rock Doc," allegedly prescribed nearly 500,000 hydrocodone pills, 300,000 oxycodone pills, 1,500 fentanyl patches, and more than 600,000 benzodiazepines. The prescriptions were reportedly sometimes written up in exchange for sexual favors.

Per the Post, another doctor in Dayton, Ohio worked with several pharmacists to a run a "pill mill," through which they dispensed more than 1.7 million painkillers between October 2015 and October 2017.

Some doctors were writing 100 prescriptions per day, NPR reports.

The Center for Disease Control has reported that 130 Americans die every day of opioid-related overdoses and Attorney General William Barr has called the epidemic "the deadliest drug crisis in American history." It's no surprise, then, that the Justice Department has targeted doctors, health care companies, and drug manufacturers for their alleged roles in perpetuating the addiction cycle.

However, Brian Benczkowski, the assistant attorney general for the DOJ's criminal division, did say that the sting operation revealed "outliers" and the doctors, pharmacists, and other medical professionals who face charges do not represent the norm. "We're targeting the worst of the worst doctors in these districts," he said. Tim O'Donnell

April 1, 2019

It's become well known that the Sackler family, founders of Purdue Pharma, have come under scrutiny for their company's role in America's current opioid epidemic. Purdue and the Sacklers now face upwards of 1,600 lawsuits.

But not only do the lawsuits attempt to show that the Sacklers, who have so far avoided legal consequences, were heavily involved in marketing opioids to patients, The New York Times reported on Monday. The family also allegedly sought to profit by selling treatments to patients who became addicted to Purdue's painkillers.

Details of the marketing push, referred to as Project Tango, are reportedly laid bare in lawsuits filed by the attorneys general of Massachusetts and New York.

The New York complaint highlights one Project Tango document which depicted a blue funnel — the larger end of which was labeled "pain treatment," the narrow end labeled "opioid addiction treatment." The document said that "pain treatment and addiction are naturally linked," suggesting the profits from one could lead to profits from the other. The Times reports that an email included in the Massachusetts filing shows that Kathe Sackler, one of the eight family members on Purdue's board, told employees to direct 'immediate attention" to the idea.

Purdue also reportedly pursued a plan to sell naloxone, an overdose-reversing drug and in 2016, three Sacklers "discussed buying a company that used implantable drug pumps to treat opioid addiction." Purdue has continued to develop products for opioid treatment, though it says it is also taking charitable steps to curb addiction. The Sacklers denied the allegations against them in a statement provided to the Times. Read more at The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

March 26, 2019

The public still won't hear details regarding Purdue Pharma's push to market the painkiller OxyContin. Testimony from members the company's founding family, the Sacklers, won't happen either.

The pharmaceutical giant reached a $270 million dollar settlement on Tuesday with the state of Oklahoma, and legal experts argue that the settlement could help set a floor amount for other lawsuits filed against Purdue and the Sacklers, The Wall Street Journal reports. Oklahoma's attorney general claimed that Purdue's aggressive marketing tactics for OxyContin and other prescription painkillers helped fuel America's opioid crisis; the two sides reached the agreement just two months before the scheduled trial.

The New York Times reports that $100 million from the settlement will fund an addiction treatment and research center at Oklahoma State University in Tulsa, $70 million will pay Oklahoma cities, counties, and Native American tribes and to reimburse the state for its litigation costs. The Sacklers, who were reportedly not named in the lawsuit, will contribute an additional $75 million over five years.

Other companies involved in the lawsuit, such as Johnson and Johnson, have not settled, however. The trial, therefore, is still scheduled for May 28.

Purdue and the Sacklers, meanwhile, still face more than 1,600 opioid lawsuits from 37 states, and numerous cities, counties, and tribes across the United States. For the time being, though, the public won't hear "full recounting of Purdue's actions in promoting OxyContin to doctors and underplaying its addictive properties," writes the Times. Tim O'Donnell

March 5, 2019

Facing more than 1,000 lawsuits, Purdue Pharma is exploring filing for bankruptcy, people familiar with the matter told Reuters Monday.

Purdue Pharma makes OxyContin, and the lawsuits allege the company was a major contributor to the nation's opioid crisis by not being up front with doctors and patients about long-term use of the powerful drug. Filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy would halt those suits, Reuters reports, and Purdue could negotiate with plaintiffs under the supervision of a bankruptcy judge. People with knowledge of the matter said no final decision has been made, and Purdue could decide to continue to fight the lawsuits instead.

Owned by the Sackler family, Purdue denies any wrongdoing and says it placed warning labels approved by the Food and Drug Administration on its bottles, notifying users about the risk of misusing the product. Last June, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D) sued Purdue and members of the Sackler family, claiming that while they amassed a fortune of $4.2 billion, they were knowingly misleading the public through deceptive marketing.

OxyContin sales have dropped to $1.74 billion in 2017 from $2.6 billion in 2012, Symphony Health Solutions reports. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that in 2017, opioids contributed to 47,600 overdose deaths in the United States. Catherine Garcia

January 31, 2019

A truck filled with cucumbers turned out to have a much more insidious load onboard: $3.5 million in fentanyl and $1.1 million in methamphetamine.

Border patrol agents announced the drug bust on Thursday, which was made with the help of a drug-sniffing dog, NBC News reports. Smugglers had hidden 254 pounds of fentanyl under the floorboard of a truck at the border's port of entry in Nogales, Arizona, along with 395 pounds of methamphetamine.

Fentanyl was credited with 18,000 overdose deaths in 2016, making it the deadliest illicit drug out there, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report recently found. Thursday's haul contained enough fentanyl to kill about 57 million people, an internal border patrol report obtained by Fox News said. That bust breaks a previous record of 118 pounds of fentanyl found in Nebraska last year, per the Kansas City Star.

The illegal drug trade has been a major talking point in President Trump's quest for a southern border wall. Conservatives quickly seized on the discovery, with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) using it to declare "there is a crisis on our border." Still, Drug Enforcement Agency records show a wall wouldn't curb the drug flow. A "majority of the flow" of drugs over the U.S.-Mexico border happens at legal ports of entry, and only "a small percentage" is seized during illegal crossings, the DEA said in its 2018 threat assessment. Kathryn Krawczyk

January 25, 2019

Americans are dying in ever-increasing numbers as the ongoing opioid crisis rages on. They're also forming a growing percentage of organ donors, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Friday shows.

In 2010, about 8.9 percent of organs came what the CDC calls "increased risk donors," Stat News describes. That term describes "donors at increased risk for transmitting" hepatitis B and C and HIV to recipients, the CDC report describes. About 4.3 percent of 2010's organ donors had died due to drug intoxication, and another 1.3 percent had reported injection drug use in their lifetime, with both of those factors qualifying them as IRDs.

But in 2013, the Public Health Service changed its guidelines, encouraging the testing of donors for hepatitis and HIV and separating donors in standard risk and increased risk categories. As of 2017, nearly all IRDs are tested for these viruses, allowing more of their organs to be safely used in transplants. There's also been an increase in infection monitoring once those organs are transplanted into recipients. This has all allowed the number and proportion of IRD transplants to safely triple from 2010, making up 26.3 percent of all deceased donors in 2017, the CDC numbers show.

America still faces a critical organ shortage, which scientists hope to solve by growing human organs, perhaps in other animals. But in the meantime, this report suggests further testing and virus prevention methods could allow for safe IRD transplants to continue. Read the whole CDC report here. Kathryn Krawczyk

January 16, 2019

In a court filing released Tuesday, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey asserts that the former president of Purdue Pharma, Richard Sackler, knew in the early 2000s that his company's powerful opioid painkiller, OxyContin, was being abused, but still pushed it on doctors and tried to blame users for becoming addicted.

"We have to hammer on abusers in every way possible," Sackler, whose family owns Purdue Pharma, wrote in a 2001 email. "They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals." This was one of several internal documents cited in the court filing, The New York Times reports, which also alleges that Sackler told sales representatives they needed to urge doctors to prescribe the highest dosage of OxyContin, because Purdue made the most money off of those pills.

In June, Healey sued eight members of the Sackler family, Purdue Pharma, and several directors and executives, accusing them of misleading doctors and patients about the risks of taking OxyContin. Purdue Pharma has long said the Sackler family was not involved in marketing the drug, which came on the market in 1996. Doctors were told that it was next to impossible for people to abuse the painkiller; since then, more than 200,000 people have died in the United States from OxyContin overdoses.

The court filing says the Sackler family also knew that Purdue Pharma was aware early on that OxyContin was being abused by some users and sold on the street, but never told authorities. Purdue Pharma said in a statement the court filing is "littered with biases and inaccurate characterizations." The Sacklers are extremely wealthy, with OxyContin sales helping boost their bank accounts, and involved in philanthropy. With this latest court filing, it's expected that many institutions will be urged to decline or give back their gifts, the Times reports. Read the entire complaint against Purdue Pharma at The New York Times. Catherine Garcia

January 13, 2019

One person in Chico, California, was killed and 12 more hospitalized, four of them in critical condition, after a mass overdose in which police say the victims likely ingested the opioid fentanyl.

Officers were called to a Chico home Saturday, and "found multiple individuals in what appeared to be life-threatening overdose conditions," said Michael O'Brien, Chico's police chief. They administered CPR and naxalone, an opioid antidote. "Certainly there’s potential for additional fatalities," O'Brien said. "I want to emphasize that."

Two of the responding officers were "potentially exposed" to the fentanyl and also received treatment at the hospital, though it was not immediately clear how the exposure occurred. Bonnie Kristian

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