Freeman Health System in Joplin is one of 12 Missouri hospital operations suing an opioid-maker and affiliated manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies that sold drugs such as OxyContin, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in Greene County.

The hospitals are seeking compensatory and punitive damages, as well as interest costs and other relief. That total could be as high as tens of millions of dollars for Freeman, said Don Barrett, lead lawyer for the suit.

"Hospitals are required by law to take whoever comes in the door," Barrett said. "They don't have the option of turning them away. The truth is that patients who are addicted to opioids are more costly to treat, stay in the hospital longer, they are sicker when they get there ... and pay less."

Along with Purdue Pharma, pharmacies such as CVS, Walgreens and Walmart are named as defendants. Barrett said the inclusion of pharmacies was important — according to the suit, the pharmacy companies did not respect laws requiring programs for detecting suspicious orders or filled suspicious orders even if they were detected. CoxHealth, a system based in Springfield with locations in Lamar and Monett, joined the suit.

The suit claims the defendants are responsible for an addiction problem that has been identified by federal authorities as a public health emergency. It alleges that almost 2.2 billion pills were shipped to Missouri by opioid distributors between 2006 and 2014, according to a news release from a firm representing the hospitals.

The suit details how the company and its related partners used deceptive marketing when speaking with hospitals and physicians, claiming that the risk of addiction was low when treating chronic pain and overstating the benefits.

In a statement released by Freeman, the hospital said it joined the suit for a variety of reasons, including those marketing practices, and seeks to recoup money to offset "high associated costs of treating patients with opioid addiction."

Freeman adjusted its policies for prescribing opioids as more information became clearer about the risks associated with them, according to the statement.

"However, those shifts do not erase high medical costs for associated treatment for individuals who are addicted to opioids," according to the statement. "Freeman Health System has long subsidized many of these expenses, leading to a financial burden."

Barrett said the costs of treating opioid patients has caused financial strain for hospitals across the country — many of which are nonprofits that struggle to break even.

"Hospitals have been going out of business because of opioids, and millions of dollars have been lost because of them," Barrett said. "They are an existential threat to hospitals all over the country."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 70,000 people in 2017 died of drug overdoses, and almost 68% of those deaths involved a prescription for an opioid or an illicit opioid.

In addition to the suits, states are seeking legal recourse against manufacturers. In August, a judge sided with the state of Oklahoma and found New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson liable for $572.1 million.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt is collecting stories from victims of opioid abuse, presumably for future actions. In 2017, then-Attorney General Josh Hawley sued makers Purdue, Endo and Janssen, citing many of the same reasons listed in the hospitals' case as well as contending that because the state's prescription drug program was used to pay for prescriptions, the makers engaged in Medicare fraud.

In that 2017 suit, Purdue Pharma denied any wrongdoing. In September 2019, Purdue announced a preliminary agreement to "settle the massive opioid litigation facing the company" by filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, according to a statement on its website.

Other hospitals

With the suit, the 12 hospitals join more than 650 other hospitals suing opioid-makers in states across the country.

Joe Hadsall is the digital editor for The Joplin Globe. He has been the editor of the former Nixa News-Enterprise and has worked for the Christian County Headliner News and 417 Magazine.

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