Hospitals experienced significant financial and operational harm fighting opioid crisis for two decades

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – A group of 15 Arkansas hospitals have filed a civil suit in Washington County Circuit Court against manufacturers, distributors and retailers of opioid-based drugs.

Arkansas ranks eighth in the United States for its opioid use rate according to the Arkansas Department of Human Services, in no small part due to the actions of the defendants over the past two decades.

The opioid crisis intensified during that time because the defendants flooded the state with prescription opioids the plaintiffs contend.

Between 2000 and 2016, the drug overdose rate in the state rose from 5.4 per 100,000 people to 14 per 100,000 while the defendants who make, market and sell opioids engineered a dramatic shift in how and when opioids were prescribed and used, the hospitals believe.

“They organized a complex scheme to overstate the benefits and trivialize the risk of long-term opioid use and minimized the risk of dependence among patients who used opioids to treat chronic pain,” officials said in a news release announcding the suit.

Hospitals in Arkansas and across the country are legally and morally required to treat patients with opioid dependence regardless of their ability to pay. As a result, more than any other kind of institution, hospitals have borne the financial brunt of the opioid crisis.

“The manufacturers’ deceptive marketing techniques and the active evasion of effective controls over the distribution of opioids by retailers and distributors have caused this ongoing crisis. Other than the patients who have experienced devastating and often lethal consequences, hospitals were the most direct victims of this conspiracy,” said Thomas Thrash, attorney with Thrash Law Firm P.A. in Little Rock. “Hospitals continue to provide desperately needed care, much of which is uncompensated, to effectively treat opioid-addicted patients and have saved countless lives.”

According to the Journal of Managed Care Pharmacy, the cost to hospitalize those with opioid dependence is approximately eight times higher than the cost of treating those without opioid use disorder.

In 2012, according to a study in the journal Health Affairs, an average hospital stay for a patient with an opioid-related condition cost about $28,000 and only about 20 percent of those stays were covered by private insurance. The same study found the cost of that stay rocketed to an average of $107,000 if there was an associated infection, with only 14 percent of such patients covered by insurance.

“Law enforcement and other municipal services fight this crisis every day, but after an arrest or EMS trip and the initial dose of naloxone, addicted patients are taken to hospitals where they often require sustained care,” said Don Barrett, who serves as additional counsel for plaintiffs both in Arkansas and in state-based cases across the country.

“For more than 20 years, virtually every hospital in the United States has provided and continues to provide some amount of totally uncompensated patient care as a direct result of the opioid crisis. This is not a sustainable trend. America’s hospitals can lead us out of the man-made health care disaster created by the defendants, but hospitals must receive new resources to help address two decades of financial loss,” added Barrett, known for his work in initiating the tobacco litigation that brought about the 1998 Master Settlement agreement with the tobacco industry.

The hospitals’ complaint alleges negligence, fraud and civil conspiracy by the defendants, which include Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Abbott Laboratories and more than 40 other companies and individuals involved in the manufacturing, distribution, and sales of prescription opioids.

The Arkansas hospitals are among hundreds of other hospitals across the country that have filed similar suits against opioid manufacturers and distributors.

The case number is 72-cv-20-156 in the Circuit Court of Washington County.