TALLAHASSEE --- Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi on Thursday said Florida could soon pursue legal action against manufacturers and distributors of opioids.
Bondi is working with a coalition of state attorneys general in seeking information about the distribution, marketing and sale of opioids from major manufacturers and distributors.
The state hasn’t filed suit. But Bondi’s agency last week posted a request for proposal seeking legal services from a private law firm to serve as co-counsel in “various legal matters relating to the opioid crisis.”
Also, Trish Conners, a Florida chief deputy attorney general, will be at a Jan. 31 meeting with Cleveland federal judge Dan Polster, who is overseeing upward of 200 lawsuits filed against the manufacturers of drugs such as OxyContin and Percocet.
When asked whether she would hold the companies responsible for their actions, Bondi said, “Absolutely. Are you kidding? Look at what we are facing in this state. I’m over them. Over them. They need to fix their conduct.”
Numerous states and local governments, including Delray Beach, have filed lawsuits alleging that manufacturers overstated the benefits of opioids while downplaying the risk of addiction. Other Florida cities that are considering filing suits, according to the Sun Sentinel newspaper, include Palm Beach and Broward counties.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Richard Corcoran told The News Service of Florida last week that although he hasn’t researched the details, he would lean toward litigation.
“Whether it’s cities, counties or state, my inclination would be: Why wouldn’t we? And I would have to be talked out of it as opposed to the other way around,” Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, said when asked about potential legal action.
Opioids are commonly used to treat acute and chronic pain. But abuse of the drugs has become rampant in recent years in Florida. In 2016, there were 5,725 deaths attributed to opioids, a 35 percent jump from the previous year. More than 4,000 babies were born addicted to opioids in Florida that year, a 1,000 percent increase from a decade ago.
The staggering statistics have put the opioid crisis front and center for many lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott, who has pushed to spend $53 million during the coming year on substance-abuse treatment, including medication-assisted treatment that pairs prescription drugs with counseling and other services.
A Senate health-care panel this week approved a proposal (SB 8) that includes $42 million for outpatient services; residential treatment; medication-assisted treatment, peer recovery support; hospital and first-responder outreach; and services targeted to pregnant women. The bill includes another $6 million for substance-abuse treatment for people in the criminal justice system.
Bondi gave the Senate credit for providing money and called $53 million a “good start.” But she said that “we need much more money for treatment.”
When pressed for what she thought would be an appropriate amount, she replied, “I can’t even give you one because the numbers are so outrageous.”
She said money is needed because the costs for treatment are expensive and that there are a lot of Floridians who simply cannot afford it.
“A lot of people don’t have the insurance, so that’s why it’s so important that people get the treatment. Otherwise, it’s still going to be a revolving door,” she said.
Treatment for opioids would have been covered under a Medicaid expansion under the federal health care law commonly called Obamacare, according to a Kaiser report.
But Bondi helped lead a legal challenge against the law, including a provision that would have mandated states to expand Medicaid. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the federal government couldn’t withhold money from states that didn’t expand Medicaid to childless adults earning 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $20,783 annually for an individual.
Bondi supports seven-day limits on opioids that are in pending House and Senate bills. Surgeons have expressed concerns that some patients may need more than seven days’ worth of pain medications and that the policy could result in longer hospitalizations.
But Bondi said the restrictions are necessary.
“We have to interfere with how many pills these doctors are prescribing,” she said, sharing the story of a recent discovery of two people who were given a 90-day supplies of OxyContin after they had what she described as minor outpatient surgery.
“They didn’t need all that,” she said adding that both people saw the same physician. “I’m disgusted with what he did.”