DENVER — States and cities across the country have been lining up to hold big pharmaceutical companies and their executives accountable for the nation’s opioid epidemic that has led to thousands of overdose deaths here in Colorado and across the country.
The recent ruling ordering Johnson and Johnson to pay the state of Oklahoma $572 million has given hope to the dozens of other states like Colorado hoping for their own settlements.
In the meantime, the release of DEA records that tracked every opioid pill shipped to Colorado between 2006 and 2012 shows more than 1.5 billion pills flooded the state making an addiction crisis here inevitable.
The data was obtained and released this year by The Washington Post and the specific opioid numbers for each county in Colorado and across the country have been tabulated and organized by the Securities Litigation and Consulting Group out of Virginia.
Despite a near-constant message that the opioid epidemic has been recognized and addressed, those who deal with addicts everyday have a different message about when we might see it reversed.
“The opioid epidemic is not over,” said Denver Health’s Director of Behavioral Health, Lisa Gawenus. “We’re not anywhere near a downturn. In fact, we don’t see the current situation turning for another 5 or 6 years.”
Gawenus has been treating patients with opioid addictions for more than 20 years. Her assessment of the current epidemic isn’t so much based on a continuation of Big Pharma shipping another billion pills into the state. It’s about the millions of pills already here and in the hands of street dealers.
“Health care professionals are getting it,” she said. “It's really the illicit drug suppliers that will continue to fuel our epidemic."
The numbers speak for themselves and don’t speak well of pharmaceutical manufacturers and suppliers. From 2006 to 2012, those pharmaceutical companies shipped 53 million opioid pills to Douglas County, 140 million to Adams County, 188 million to Denver County, and Jefferson County led the metro area with 210 million opioid pills shipped during those seven years.
These are pain pills that contributed to nearly 1,000 overdose deaths in Colorado just last year.
“I mean one person dying is enough, you know,” says Renee Goble, Denver’s Assistant City Attorney. “But to see the pattern – and it’s not just here, it's all over the country. I mean, something has to stop."
Goble is leading Denver’s lawsuit against Big Pharma. She doesn’t mince words when talking about what these pharmaceutical companies have done to our state and others.
“They are no different than any other drug dealer on the street. In fact, I think they are worse," she said.
She's well aware of the 188 million opioids that government records show were handed out in Denver between 2006 and 2012.
“Denver wasn't necessarily as bad as some of the smaller rural counties and other areas. But it's still a lot of pills. Thirty-something pills per person," Goble said. “That’s 30 pills every year for every man, woman and child in the county.”
“People's lives have been ruined,” said Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser. “People lost their jobs. I want to help people recover from this crisis."
Weiser is also looking for accountability. He and several other state attorneys general are also suing Big Pharma.
“I want to get the money from the settlement and use it to help both prevent on the front end and also help treatment and recovery on the back end,” Weiser says.
Attorneys general across the country have also obtained hundreds of emails between the big pharmaceutical companies and their pharmacy suppliers. They say these documents prove Big Pharma was putting profits ahead of public health.
An exchange from 2009 between opioid maker Covidien and supplier Key Source was particularly revealing.
“Keep ‘em comin’! flyin’ out of here,” said a Key Source sales rep. “It’s like people are addicted to these things or something. Oh, wait, people are…”
The response from the pharmaceutical company was, “Just like Doritos. Keep eating, we’ll make more.”
“It's really clear they saw a moneymaking opportunity,” insisted Weiser. “They targeted doctors who would overprescribe. They told people it was not addictive when they knew it was because they could make money. They wanted to make money. They didn't care about the consequences."
Those consequences are coming home for Big Pharma today. And as a result, small changes in the way opioids are being prescribed and the numbers being shipped are happening. Denver Health, for example tells us they’ve seen a more-than 10% drop in the prescribing rate of opioids from its doctors since 2016.
And Gawenus says she has witnessed a coming together of treatment centers, doctors and pharmacists in the effort to find alternatives to the use of opioids to help patients control pain. That was not something she had seen before in her 20 years of treatment efforts.