How Opioid Critics and Law Firms Profit From Litigation

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Dr. Andrew Kolodny has long been known as one of the most strident critics of opioid prescribing. The founder and Executive Director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) has claimed that drug makers and a web of industry-funded groups are to blame for the nation’s addiction and overdose crisis.

Kolodny has accused the so-called “opioid lobby” of undermining the CDC opioid guideline, claimed pain patients are being “effectively manipulated” by drug makers, and called the American Cancer Society a “shady organization” because it accepts outside funding. 

Kolodny even spoke about an “opioid mafia” as he testified as an expert witness in Oklahoma’s opioid lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson.

“We’ve seen Johnson & Johnson promote opioids in this unbranded campaign, funding front groups, patient groups meant to look like grassroots organizations that promoted opioids, funding professional groups that were promoting opioids,” Kolodny testified.  

“We know that Johnson & Johnson participated in the Pain Care Forum, a group that I have referred to as the opioid mafia, working to protect their stake in the opium supply into the United States.”

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Kolodny’s hyperbole is catnip to compliant reporters who can usually count on him to return their calls and provide a good quote.  A psychiatrist and former chief medical officer for the addiction treatment chain Phoenix House, Kolodny is the go-to source for many news organizations covering the opioid crisis. He now co-directs an opioid research program at Brandeis University that is funded by a federal grant.

Kolodny’s has long maintained that he is free of any conflicts of interest and that PROP has never accepted funding from the pharmaceutical industry.

“I don’t believe physicians should be helping drug companies market their products,” he testified in Oklahoma. “It’s very easy to fool yourself when it’s profitable to fool yourself.”

Lawyers for Johnson & Johnson have opened a window into a profitable sideline Kolodny has as a paid consultant and expert witness for law firms involved in opioid litigation.

Kolodny stands to make upwards of half a million dollars working for the law firm of Nix Patterson & Roach, one of three outside law firms hired by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter to handle the case against Johnson & Johnson.

It’s very easy to fool yourself when it’s profitable to fool yourself.
— Dr. Andrew Kolodny

Kolodny testified that he’s being paid $725 an hour by Nix Patterson and could collect up to $500,000 for his services – possibly even more, depending on the length of the Oklahoma trial. Under questioning, Kolodny also acknowledged that he was paid $725 an hour as a consultant for at least one other law firm involved in opioid litigation.

“I don’t think it should be a secret that I’m being compensated,” Koldony said, adding that he worked for Nix Patterson about ten hours a week before the trial started and 40 hours a week since it began four weeks ago. At his hourly rate, Kolodny’s weekly pay would be $29,000.

Nix Patterson can easily afford to pay Kolodny. According to the terms of their contingency agreement with Oklahoma, the three law firms stand to collect up to 25% of any damages and penalties. With $17.5 billion being sought from Johnson & Johnson, Nix Patterson’s share could theoretically add up to nearly $2.5 billion. 

Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals have already settled out-of-court with Oklahoma for far less — $270 million and $85 million respectively.  Nix Patterson’s share of the Purdue settlement alone was $31.6 million.

Compensation Not Disclosed

Koldony’s work as a paid witness in opioid litigation is not disclosed on Brandeis University’s website, PROP’s website or on the website of the Steve Rummler Hope Network, a non-profit that is the “fiscal sponsor” of PROP.  

A non-profit fiscal sponsorship is an IRS loophole that allows the Rummler Hope Network to collect tax deductible donations on PROP’s behalf — even though PROP is not a registered charity. The identity of PROP’s donors and the size of their donations have never been disclosed.

Kolodny’s work in opioid litigation was also not disclosed in a 2017 research study he co-authored that was published in JAMA Internal Medicine (ironically a study about conflict-of-interest), nor is it disclosed in a JAMA op/ed on the opioid crisis that he co-authored that same year with former CDC director Thomas Frieden, MD.

JAMA did not respond to a request for comment on whether Kolodny violated its disclosure policy for authors, which “requires complete disclosure of all relevant financial relationships and potential financial conflicts of interest, regardless of amount or value.”

Kolodny serves on the medical advisory committee of the Rummler Hope Network, along with PROP President Jane Ballantyne, MD. Coincidentally, Ballantyne worked as a paid consultant for Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll – another law firm involved in opioid litigation in New Jersey, Indiana, Vermont, California and Illinois.

Kolodny testified in the Oklahoma trial that he also did some consulting for attorney Linda Singer at Cohen Milstein, which The New York Times profiled in 2014 as a politically influential law firm that was laying the groundwork for opioid lawsuits around the country. Singer was the lead outside counsel for the City of Chicago and Santa Clara County, California, two of the first jurisdictions to file opioid lawsuits.

“The lawsuits follow a pattern: Private lawyers, who scour the news media and public records looking for potential cases in which a state or its consumers have been harmed, approach attorneys general. The attorneys general hire the private firms to do the necessary work, with the understanding that the firms will front most of the cost of the investigation and the litigation. The firms take a fee, typically 20 percent, and the state takes the rest of any money won from the defendants,” the Times reported.

Singer left Cohen Milstein in 2017 to join Motley Rice, yet another law firm that specializes in healthcare litigation. PNN was unable to verify whether Kolodny was still on the payroll of Cohen Milstein, Motley Rice or any other law firms. He refused to discuss his work in opioid litigation.

“I’m not interested in answering any questions or talking to you,” Kolodny told this reporter.

PharmedOUT’s Paid Expert Witness

Another vocal critic of opioid prescribing is Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman, Director of PharmedOUT, a program at Georgetown University Medical Center that seeks to expose deceptive marketing practices in the healthcare industry.

In a recent column in STAT News, Fugh-Berman and two of her grad students echoed many of Kolodony’s complaints about opioid manufacturers — claiming that “industry-funded attacks” on the CDC guideline by physician and patient advocacy groups were eroding public health.   

“The eerily similar attacks on the guideline… raise the question of whether this is a coordinated attempt by opioid manufacturers to use third parties to undermine, discredit, and smear the guideline,” they wrote. “There’s certainly a credible motive for opioid manufacturers to do this: The CDC guideline is an effective, evidence-based tool that has helped decrease inappropriate and dangerous prescribing of opioids for chronic pain patients.”

DR. ADRIANE FUGH-BERMAN

DR. ADRIANE FUGH-BERMAN

Unlike Kolodny, Fugh-Berman does disclose on PharmedOUT’s website that she is “a paid expert witness.” It is not disclosed, however, which law firms Fugh-Berman works for, what cases she is working on, or how much she is paid.

After initially agreeing to a telephone interview with PNN, Fugh-Berman abruptly cancelled. She did answer a few questions by email.

“I am a paid expert witness at the request of plaintiffs in litigation regarding pharmaceutical and medical device marketing practices, including litigation brought by several states and cities against opioid manufacturers.  My expert witness work has been disclosed to Georgetown, in my publications, and on our website,” Fugh-Berman wrote.

(Update: In testimony in California, Fugh-Berman said she billed $500 an hour for her testimony in a pelvic mesh liability trial of Johnson & Johnson. So far she has received about $120,000 for her work on the case.)

Like PROP, PharmedOUT does not disclose it donors, which Fugh-Berman calls “a common practice.”

“(We) are funded primarily by individual donations, mostly small donations but we have several major donors. We do not provide the names of our individual donors,” she said.

Fugh-Berman did disclose that Kaiser Permanente sponsored PharmedOUT’s recent opioid conference, which featured a speech by Kolodny entitled “How the Opioid Lobby Protected the Status Quo” and a talk by a Kaiser doctor on “How Kaiser Permanente Promotes Rational Prescribing.”  

Lobbying and Campaign Donations

Law firms involved in opioid litigation have played a significant role in some political campaigns and in shaping news coverage of the opioid crisis. The national firm of Simmons Hanly Conroy — which claims to have “effectively invented large-scale, multi-defendant opioid litigation” — represents dozens of states, counties and cities that are suing drug companies. According to reports, Simmons Hanly’s contingency fee will be as high as one-third of the proceeds from opioid settlements.

In the 2018 congressional election, Simmons Hanly spent nearly $1.2 million on lobbying and donated over $1 million to candidates, according to OpenSecrets.org. Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) received five times more than any other candidate — nearly $410,000 — from donors affiliated with Simmons Hanly.

In February of that year, McCaskill released a report that was sharply critical of physician and patient advocacy groups for accepting money from opioid manufacturers. At least two organizations cited in the McCaskill report — the American Academy of Pain Medicine and the American Pain Society (APS) — are named as defendants in opioid lawsuits filed by Simmons Hanly. The APS recently filed for bankruptcy, citing the high cost of defending itself against “meritless” law suits.

The report made headlines for McCaskill, who ultimately lost her bid for re-election, but continues to make news today — most recently in the STAT news column written by paid expert witness Dr. Fugh-Berman.

With the Oklahoma trial now heading into its fifth week, enormous amounts of money are at stake. A verdict against Johnson & Johnson could lead to a cascade of settlements in hundreds of other opioid lawsuits that could cost the pharmaceutical industry up to $50 billion. States, cities and counties would certainly benefit from a settlement of that size. So would the law firms that represent them – and their paid witnesses.