From 2006 to 2015, Dr. Michael Rhodes was one of the top prescribers of OxyContin in the state of Tennessee.
His practice had many of the signs of what had come to be called a “pill mill.” Lines of people outside. A knife fight in front of his office. Investigators found he often prescribed without proper physical examinations or knowing the medical histories of his patients. Over those years, Rhodes, of Springfield TN, prescribed 319,000 OxyContin tablets. In May, 2013 had his license placed on restrictive probation by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners.
Still, representatives from drug-maker Purdue Pharma continued to call on him urging him to prescribe more OxyContin, their signature drug, according to a lawsuit filed by Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery.
“In spite of this disciplinary action by the board (of medical examiners) and direct knowledge of his patient’s death from OxyContin, Purdue continued to call on Dr. Rhodes,” the Tennessee complaint states. They continued to “pressure Dr. Rhodes to prescribe more and more opioids, even when he expressed concerns regarding his own ability to competently do so.”
According to the lawsuit, Purdue reps called on Dr. Rhodes 126 times, include 31 times after his license was restricted.
They did so during the years after the company signed an agreement in 2007 with the federal government to be vigilant for abuse and diversion of the pills and look out for doctors prescribing in unscrupulous ways.
That lawsuit, filed in May and unsealed by a state court judge a week ago, alleges the company was largely to blame for the opiate epidemic in Tennessee by creating a public nuisance due to its marketing techniques. (See previous related blogpost.)
Part of the Tennessee complaint against Purdue catalogues alleged attempts by the company to get high-prescribing doctors and nurses to prescribe even more of their product, despite signs that those medical professionals were behaving in unethical ways and that their prescribing habits were out of control. Cultivating high-volume prescribers, the complaint alleges, was seen as crucial to the company’s business. The complaint alleges the company called on several such nurse practitioners, three now-shuttered pain clinics, and 13 doctors, who’ve retired or had their licenses revoked or placed on probation.
Among them was Dr. James Pogue, of Brentwood, TN, who prescribed 562,000 OxyContin 80mg pills between 2006 and 2013, making him one of the largest prescribers in Tennessee even three years after he stopped practicing medicine. He generated $655,000 in revenue for the company during one six-month period in 2009, according to the complaint.
Company sales reps called on him 53 times between 2005 and 2012, “more than half of those occasion coming after his license was reprimanded in 2009.”
The Breakthrough Pain Therapy Center, in Maryville TN, was known to have none of the typical diagnostic tools associated with pain clinics: examination tables, gloves, urine screens “or providers who performed independent pain diagnoses.” It also included “scant” office records and pre-written prescriptions often dispensed “without a physician present.”
While placing some staff on no-call lists, the complaint claims Purdue continued to call on other staff members at Breakthrough Pain Therapy, whose owners were federally indicted in December 2010. This included Buffy Kirkland, a nurse practitioner who worked there for several years. Between 1998 and 2017 as a nurse practioner in Tennessee, she prescribed 68,000 OxyContin tablets, of which two-thirds were of 40mg or stronger, according to the complaint.
The Tennessee complaint is one of numerous lawsuits filed in the last year or so against Purdue and several other drug companies that make opioid painkillers. The plaintiffs include Native-American tribes, small towns like Everett, WA and large cities like Los Angeles and Chicago. Most state attorneys general have filed lawsuits, as have at least 300 counties in a suit that alleges a “public nuisance” by these companies. That suit is consolidated in a federal court in Cleveland.
When I was writing Dreamland in 2013-14, I remember only three such lawsuits against makers of opioid painkillers. This was a time when the issue was largely hidden, those affected largely silent. Families were ashamed and wanted to obscure the truth of the addiction and manner of death of their loved ones. Thus the media paid scant attention and elected officials, outside those in a few states, paid less.
But the awareness has expanded in the last three years. One result is that many more lawyers across the country have turned to examining legal theories that might prosper in court.
Public agencies have been hammered by the cost of the epidemic. Indeed the epidemic’s costs have largely been borne by the public — by coroners and public health offices, police and sheriffs departments, jails, county hospitals, foster children agencies and more. Meanwhile profits have largely accrued to the private sector, mostly to pharmaceutical companies.
Thus, today, most state and county officials have to be seen by their constituencies as doing something dramatic about this epidemic, and a lawsuit has become an option to recoup some of those costs. None of the new lawsuits has yet gone to court.