By Pat Anson, Editor
Imagine spending your retirement defending yourself against hundreds of lawsuits in courthouses around the country – all of them alleging that you played a key role in starting the opioid crisis and that you were indirectly responsible for thousands of overdose deaths.
“It is mind boggling to me and its frightening, actually. I don’t know how I’m going to defend myself,” says Lynn Webster, MD, a pain management expert and former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. “Right now, we’re just trying to keep our head above the water.”
Webster has been named as a defendent in so many class action lawsuits – along with Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Endo, Janssen and other opioid manufacturers – that he’s lost track. He knows of at least 80 lawsuits but believes there are many more.
“I think it could be several hundred,” he says.
The latest one was filed this week by Salt Lake County, Utah -- where Webster lives -- alleging that drug makers employed him in deceptive marketing practices that downplayed the risks of addiction and overdose. Like the other lawsuits by states, counties and cities, Salt Lake County seeks to recover taxpayer money spent on treating addiction, combating opioid abuse and policing opioid related crimes.
“Utah’s opioid crisis stems directly from a callously deceptive marketing scheme that was spearheaded by certain opioid manufacturers and perpetuated by prominent doctors they bankrolled,” the lawsuit alleges.
“Dr. Webster’s advocacy of opioids was designed to create a veneer of impartiality. But Dr. Webster was a forceful proponent of the concept of ‘pseudoaddiction,’ the notion that addictive behaviors should be seen not as a warning, but as indicators of undertreated pain. The only way to differentiate between the two, Dr. Webster claims, was to increase a patient’s dose of opioids.”
Until he retired from clinical practice in 2010, Webster operated the Lifetree Pain Clinic in Salt Lake City. The lawsuit makes a point of mentioning that at least 20 of Webster’s patients died from overdoses and that he was investigated – but never charged with a crime -- by the DEA and the U.S. Senate Finance Committee.
“Most of what they have in there, at least about me, is false. And I think I can prove that,” Webster told PNN.
A footnote in the lawsuit contains the curious but important disclaimer that “Salt Lake County asserts no claim against Dr. Webster arising from his medical practice. The claims against Dr. Webster relate solely to his participation, as a KOL and otherwise, in Manufacturing Defendants deceptive marketing campaign.”
'Key Opinion Leader'
KOL is an acronym for “key opinion leader” – a euphemism for doctors alleged to be so influential that they helped convince other physicians to prescribe more opioids. Webster and three other pain doctors -- Russell Portenoy, Perry Fine and Scott Fishman -- are portrayed in the lawsuits as KOLs who greedily accepted millions of dollars in payments from drug makers in return for their promotion of opioids.
“It's mind boggling to think how four individuals can be accountable for essentially brainwashing all of the doctors in the country to do something intentionally to make pharmaceutical countries rich. How can anyone think that is plausible? It’s crazy,” says Webster. “Most of the pharmaceutical companies that they’ve listed I never received a dime from.”
According to the Salt Lake County lawsuit, Webster was “handsomely rewarded for his efforts,” receiving nearly $2 million from opioid manufacturers from 2009 to 2013. Webster says that dollar amount is unfair and misleading because most of it stems from his work as a researcher. He is currently Vice President of Scientific Affairs at PRA Health Sciences, a clinical research company.
“If you’re a principal investigator in a research program that has contracted with a pharmaceutical company, that money goes under your name. But its money to conduct a trial. Not a penny of it goes to me,” says Webster. “I have received compensation for consultant work and advisory boards. My consultant work is because of my area of expertise. That’s not unusual. And I do not speak for a company’s product. I do not benefit at all because I personally have no shares in any pharmaceutical company.”
Since retiring from clinical practice, Webster has become an outspoken critic of efforts by the government and insurance industry to limit opioid prescribing -- which he believes have gone too far and unfairly punish pain patients, while ignoring the larger issue of illicit fentanyl, heroin and other black market drugs.
With so many lawsuits hanging over him, Webster’s financial future is uncertain. He says he and his fellow KOLs could be bankrupted by legal fees before any of the lawsuits come to trial.
“We don’t have any big pocket that’s going to pay for anything,” he said. “If a jury decided to award money from us, they wouldn’t get any money, because there is no money. We would be all bankrupt by the time we got to court.”
Drug makers, on the other hand, do have big pockets. And during the 1990’s many of the same law firms now involved in opioid litigation helped win big settlements with the tobacco industry worth upwards of $200 billion. That includes the law firm of Hagens Berman, which is handling the Salt Lake County lawsuit. The firm also represents the city of Seattle in a nearly identical lawsuit against opioid makers, in which Webster is named as a KOL.
Webster is also named in a string of lawsuits filed by the law firm of Simmons Hanly Conroy, which represents dozens of states, counties and cities. Simmons will pocket one-third of the proceeds from any opioid settlement, which could run into hundreds of billions of dollars.
Simmons is well connected politically, having donated $219,000 to the re-election campaign of Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill (D), who coincidentally released a report in February that's highly critical of patient advocacy groups and medical associations for accepting money from opioid manufacturers.
It is against these political, financial and legal forces that Webster must find a way to defend himself.
“The body of the allegations are inaccurate, misleading and irresponsibly paint a picture which ignores the realities of Dr. Webster’s compassionate commitment to alleviating suffering in his chronic pain patients,” Peter Striba, Webster’s attorney, wrote in a letter to the Salt Lake Tribune. “It is estimated that there are approximately one-hundred million chronic pain patients in our Country, and it is very telling that their suffering and their medical condition is entirely absent in the narrative of the Complaint.”