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Physicians Facing Charges, Including Murder, for Overprescribing Opioids & other Pain Medications

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Every sixteen minutes, someone in the U.S. dies from an opioid-related overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.   Physicians who negligently prescribe opioids for their patients are increasingly being held liable, and some physicians have been charged with murder for improper opioid prescription practices.  In 2015, a Los Angeles physician was the first to be convicted of murder for overprescribing opioids.

The recent high profile cases against physicians who provided dangerous opioid prescriptions for their patients have brought the opioid addiction epidemic to the forefront of media coverage.  The coverage has also put pharmaceutical companies in the spotlight.  In the 1980’s and 1990’s, pharmaceutical companies aggressively marketed opioids to physicians.   Purdue Pharma marketed the opioid OxyContin as “abuse resistant.”  OxyContin hit the market in 1996, and in its first year, the drug accounted for $45 million in sales for Purdue Pharma.  By 2000, sales for OxyContin were at $1.1 billion, and by 2010, sale of the drug skyrocketed to $3.1 billion.

Higher and higher concentrations of the drug had been approved by the FDA, and OxyContin became a popular street drug.  As sales of the opioid boomed, Purdue Pharma aggressively marketed the drug as having an incredibly low risk of addiction, asserting at one point, that the potential for addiction was less than one percent.  Of course, these assertions were not true.  But the FDA accepted the drug company’s claims, stating that, “delayed absorption, as provided by OxyContin tablets is believed to reduce the abuse liability of a drug.”

Not only were oncologists and pain specialists prescribing OxyContin and other opioids at record rates, but primary care physicians began prescribing these drugs, feeding the opioid addiction and abuse crisis.  Physicians all over the country thought that OxyContin was not dangerous, and even though information about OxyContin’s addictive qualities came to light in 2007, physicians continued to prescribe it along with other opioids.  In fact, opioid prescriptions were three times higher in 2015 than they were in 1999.

Last month, Missouri senator Claire McCaskill expanded her opioid investigation to include documents from opioid distributors and pharmaceutical companies.  Initially, McCaskill’s investigation focused on the relationship between prescription drugs and the opioid epidemic.  Patient advocates around the world want a heightened focus on opioid prescribing habits in the physician’s office, with a strong focus on protecting patients at risk.  The number of deaths occurring as a result of opioid addiction is inexcusable.