Sen. Joe Manchin backs suit by addicts who say docs and Big Pharma conspired to hook them on opioids
Sen. Joe Manchin

A West Virginia senator whose daughter is embroiled in the EpiPen price-gouging scandal backs a lawsuit filed by dozens of former painkiller addicts and their families against doctors and drug makers.

The lawsuit, which is expected to go to trial later this year, accuses doctors, pharmacies and distributors of conspiring to deliberately get them addicted to opioid-based prescription pills, reported The Guardian.

The defendants argued that the former addicts should not be allowed to sue because their own criminal actions caused them to become physically dependent on the prescribed medications -- but the state supreme court rejected that claim and allowed the case to proceed.

Their argument is backed by pharmaceutical manufacturers, who stand to lose millions of dollars if the lawsuit succeeds.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) backs the former addicts and their families, comparing the pharmaceutical companies to cigarette manufacturers.

“That’s the same argument that the tobacco industry used," Manchin said. "They can’t go down that path. It’s an epidemic because we have a business model for it. Follow the money. Look at the amount of pills they shipped into certain parts of our state. It was a business model.”

Manchin has been dragged into the widening scandal over the increasing cost of the life-saving EpiPen allergy drug involving his daughter, Heather Bresch, who is CEO of the pharmaceutical manufacturer Mylan.

Bresch enjoyed a 671 percent pay raise after acquiring EpiPens and raising the cost by more than 400 percent -- then dumping more than 100,000 shares of Mylan stock after analysts warned she and the company faced a potential public relations nightmare.

Mylan shares dropped from $49 on Aug. 18 to $42.91 on Aug. 26, after the EpiPen controversy erupted.

West Virginia has been hit particularly hard by prescription drug addiction, and the related heroin epidemic.

Six drug wholesalers agreed this year to a $6.7 million settlement with the state after they were accused of distributing millions of prescription opioids, although McKesson Corp. and other drugmakers are continuing to fight the accusations.

The companies argue that West Virginia's pharmacy board, which licenses drug wholesalers, would have taken action if they were at fault -- but Manchin disagreed.

“Look at the amount of pills they shipped into certain parts of our state and the pill mills that sprouted up and everyone trying to hide behind thinking it was legal," Manchin said. "It was awful, absolutely awful. I believe it was business-driven, it was a business model. Those who have done extremely well on that and been rewarded very highly for that have looked at it as a legal business plan like any other business plan.”

Wilbert Hatcher is one of 29 former addicts or their relatives who have sued “a veritable rogue’s gallery of pill-pushing doctors and pharmacies” who he claims knowingly and intentionally got him addicted to pain pills and then refused to help him get clean.

“It was a conspiracy,” said attorney Jim Cagle, who represents Hatcher and the others. “Doctors and pharmacies were keeping them hooked. They were feeding the addiction.”

Some of the physicians and pharmacists named in the suit have been jailed or lost their medical licenses.

“It’s a circle -- you go to the doctor and they bill you," said Hatcher, who has been clean for about three years but lost a decade to drug addiction. "The pharmacy, they’re a part of it because they were giving out a whole bunch of pills. It’s business. This is spit town. How many pills were they selling? Enough for a major city. This is ridiculous.”