A doctor who spent decades advocating for broader use of powerful prescription painkillers is now working with the state and local governments that are suing drug companies over the opioid crisis.
Dr. Russell Portenoy, a professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, is helping the plaintiffs in exchange for having claims against him dropped. His cooperation was made public late last week in a court filing from a special court master who is helping manage more than 1,500 lawsuits against the drug industry that are consolidated under a federal judge in Cleveland.
The special master, David Cohen, said the government plaintiffs portrayed Portenoy "as a paid shill for the manufacturer defendants by promoting the use of prescription opioids while downplaying their risks."
Cohen also found that Portenoy failed to disclose to the drugmakers and distributors that he was cooperating with the government plaintiffs when they struck that deal in March 2018. As a result, the governments will not be able to use his testimony in cases filed by the Ohio counties of Cuyahoga and Summit that are scheduled for trial in October.
A deposition Portenoy gave earlier this year for a trial over opioids in Oklahoma also cannot be used in those first federal cases, but Cohen said Portenoy can be called to testify in later trials.
Robert Josephson, a spokesman for OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, said in a statement that the sanction against the plaintiffs is appropriate. Hunter Shkolnik, a lawyer who has handled the Portenoy matter for the state and local governments in the federal cases, did not return a call on Monday.
Opioid drugs have long been used for end-of-life and post-surgery pain. But beginning in the 1990s, a new generation of the drugs was increasingly used to treat chronic pain.
Lawsuits filed by state and local governments across the country assert that the change was a major factor in a national opioid addiction and overdose crisis.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the class of drugs, including prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and illicit drugs including fentanyl and heroin, were involved in a record 48,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2017 — more than died in vehicle crashes.
Lawyers representing the governments say "opinion leaders" such as Portenoy were a key reason for the shift in prescribing philosophy.
Portenoy was publishing findings to support expanding opioids' use to combat chronic pain as far back as the 1980s. For a time, he served as president of the American Pain Society, an organization that was heavily supported by drugmakers.
Portenoy and other doctors who advocated more liberal use of opioids were named as defendants in scores of the cases the governments have brought against the drug industry.
Portenoy also made a declaration late last year laying out how he would testify at trial, a document that is under seal in federal court. Neither Portenoy nor his lawyers returned calls Monday from The Associated Press.
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