Kentucky Case Seeks to Hold Oxycontin Makers Accountable

Oxycontin has become so pervasive in eastern Kentucky the drug was dubbed “Heroin of the Hills.” Now, after years of struggling to combat the abuse of the narcotic, Kentucky officials are getting a chance to pursue the drug’s maker in state court.

The Kentucky Attorney General’s Office won a court ruling pushing a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma back from federal court to Pike County, which is in the heart of the Appalachian region where drug abuse is rampant and where the litigation originated.

“Drug companies that mislead consumers about the nature of their drugs must be held accountable,” Attorney General Jack Conway said.

Kentucky sued Purdue Pharma in 2007 seeking reimbursement of money spent on law enforcement, drug treatment programs and Medicaid prescriptions.

Kentucky officials accused Purdue Pharma of falsely promoting Oxycontin, the brand name for oxycodone, to health care providers as less addictive and less likely to cause withdrawal than other pain medications.

Purdue Pharma moved the case to federal court in eastern Kentucky, then to southern New York, citing federal issues involved in the litigation.

On Wednesday, Judge Stefan R. Underhill, writing for the New York-based 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, found that the case belonged in state court. The federal appeals court, though, did not weigh in on the merits of Kentucky’s case.

“Whether the plaintiffs may proceed and ultimately recover on their claims presents complex questions of Kentucky law, which we only see through (a) glass darkly, and upon which we express no opinion.”

Libby Holman, a spokeswoman for Connecticut-based Purdue Pharma, described the company as disappointed in the appeals court decision. But she said it dealt only with where the case should proceed, not whether Kentucky can prove its claims.

“Now that the federal jurisdictional issue is resolved, Purdue is fully prepared to vigorously defend this action on the merits, and we expect to prevail,” Holman wrote in an email to The Associated Press.

No trial date has been set.

By 2000, Oxycontin abuse was on the rise. Police blamed the drug for hundreds of deaths, and in 2007 a federal judge ordered Purdue and three of its executives to pay a $634.5 million fine for misleading the public about the drug’s risk of addiction.

Purdue has denied misleading consumers. In a 2007 affidavit, Purdue’s Vice President for Human Resources, David Long, estimated that the company sold more than $5 million worth of the drug in Kentucky between January 2006 and August 2007, but denied that Purdue Pharma did anything illegal.

Kentucky officials said the drug has created huge expenses in eastern Kentucky.

Operation UNITE, an anti-drug coalition in 29 eastern Kentucky counties, estimates that it has spent more than $15 million on drug enforcement since June 2006. Dan Smoot, the law enforcement director for Operation UNITE, said the funds went for salaries, wages, fringe benefits, drug informant funds, fuel, vehicle maintenance, supplies, rent and utilities. During that time, the group seized about11,500 pills.

While not addressing the lawsuit, Kentucky’s drug control chief, Van Ingram, said an Oxycontin pill can sell for $80-to-$100 on the street as a crackdown on pain pills makes the narcotics tougher to get.

Keith Mills, a spokesman for Westcare, a drug treatment center that operates in eastern Kentucky, said prescription pain pills are still among the most common addictions.

“Around here, we still have a lot of problems with doctors over-prescribing, making it easier to get prescription drugs,” West said.