Prominent Pain Doctor Faces Hundreds of Lawsuits

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.    

DR. LYNN WEBSTER

DR. LYNN WEBSTER

“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.

He's written a book, called "The Painful Truth" and self-financed a PBS documentary by the same name.  Webster also comments frequently on PNN about opioid related issues.

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.

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“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.” 

How the CDC Opioid Guidelines Affected Me

By Sarah Irvine, Guest Columnist

I'm 42 years old and have been suffering from chronic pain for the past several years. I was injured at work almost 8 years ago and, like many others, I have been affected by the CDC opioid guidelines.

I have herniated and bulging discs in my lower back, scoliosis and I ambulate with a cane. I have Protein C deficiency, a blood clotting disorder, and I am not a surgical candidate.

I live with excruciating pain and my pain medication, morphine sulfate, has been decreased from 150 mg daily to 45 mg daily. I also was recently prescribed Lyrica and baclofen, a muscle relaxer.

This does nothing to alleviate my pain. I'm becoming shorter, my spine is shaped like a serpent and my muscles are becoming more atrophied. Workers compensation refuses to pay for any more physical therapy and Medicare won't cover it either.

I'm certainly not able to pay out of pocket and at this point I'm in too much pain to function. Due to the Protein C deficiency, I should not take NSAIDs or steroids because they increase my risk of bleeding. I am also on a high dose of Coumadin for my blood disorder.

SARAH IRVINE

SARAH IRVINE

Things have gotten so bad because of the guidelines that my doctors are now telling me to take NSAIDs and are prescribing steroids; whereas before I was warned to avoid those medications and doctors refused to prescribe them for me.

I have never abused, misused, shared or sold my medications! It truly seems as though the CDC and DEA want to decrease the population of those who suffer from chronic pain by refusing patients adequate medical treatment and appropriate pain management.

I also believe that they hope those of us who are suffering will take our own lives, rather than try to endure the horrific chronic pain.

I'm on disability and no longer able to work because of my injury and the pain I endure. My quality of life has deteriorated to nothing. Some days all I can do is lay in bed. I can't even enjoy reading a book or watching a TV program without my pain interfering.

I do not understand why I and thousands of others in the same situation are being forced to suffer unnecessarily! We aren't criminals, drug dealers or addicts! We are victims of our pain!

Every aspect of my life is affected by my pain on a daily basis. I know I'm not alone. I only want to enjoy whatever is left of my life.

There are medications that would allow me and others to do so. Why are they being withheld from us? If we were animals, we would be treated more humanely than this.

I just want to know what I can do, who I can call, email or write to in order to get these abusive, inhumane laws changed. Also, is it possible to file a class action lawsuit against the DEA, CDC or both? Is there a class action lawsuit in place right now? If so, what can I do to get involved?

It's not about financial gain. This is about quality of life! What is happening right now is downright cruel, inhumane and criminal. I would be very appreciative if someone could lead me in the right direction so that I can do whatever is within my power, to get my life back and help others, before it's too late. I'm tired of being abused and victimized. I want my life back.

Sarah Irvine is from New York state.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us.  Send them to:  editor@PainNewsNetwork.org

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Kratom Vendors File Lawsuit Against Feds

By Pat Anson, Editor

Four kava bar owners in South Florida – one of them a retired police officer – have filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice over its threated ban on kratom.

Named as co-defendants are Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Chuck Rosenberg, the acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The lawsuit, first reported by New Times Broward Palm Beach , was filed by Michael Dombrowksi, who owns the Tenaga Kava bar in Palm Beach Gardens.  Dombrowski says his business relies on kratom tea sales and he risked losing a million dollars in revenue if the DEA carried out plans to list two of the active ingredients in kratom  as Schedule I controlled substances.

“Plaintiff business relies primarily on kratom tea sales, as do 9 other kava and tea lounges where consumers purchase and rely upon kratom tea for a variety of claims from medicinal value to relaxation,” the lawsuit states. 

“Defendant will lose all of his investment in the creation of his business in 2015 including the bulk of his law enforcement retirement and the loss of his livelihood which he planned for his happy retirement.”

Listed as co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit are James Scianno of the Purple Lotus Kava Bar in Boynton Beach and Keith Engelhardt and Thomas Harrison of Kavasutra in West Palm Beach. 

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in West Palm Beach, seeks an emergency injunction to prevent the scheduling of kratom, along with punitive damages of $14 million.

The lawsuit was filed on September 30, the same day the DEA could have made the sale and possession of kratom a felony by putting it in the same class of controlled substances as heroin, LSD and marijuana.. The agency delayed the scheduling after a backlash from kratom consumers and some members of Congress, who urged the DEA to seek public comment on its ruling.

The DEA claims kratom, which comes from the leaves of a tree in Southeast Asia, has a high potential for abuse because of its “psychoactive effects” and that imported kratom products are “routinely misdeclared and falsely labelled.”

Kratom is usually sold as dried or crushed leaves, powder, capsules, and tablets. Some kava bars, like the ones in Florida, brew kratom leaves with kava root to make a strong tea. In 2013, a lawsuit was filed against the owners of the Purple Lotus bar for not disclosing that the tea contained kratom. The plaintiff in that suit – a recovering alcoholic -- claimed she became addicted to kratom tea.

Kratom supporters say the herb is no more addictive than caffeine and helps treat symptoms of chronic pain, anxiety, depression and addiction.

Patients Deserve to Know the Truth about Cymbalta

By Crystal Lindell, Columnist

Look, yes, Cymbalta probably saved my life. But it also sucks. So, I’m not surprised people are suing Eli Lilly, the makers of the drug. 

I can still remember talking to a nurse over the phone at the Mayo Clinic’s pain rehab program when she mentioned Cymbalta. It was the same pain program my insurance company would eventually deny, prompting the Mayo Clinic to ask for $35,000 up-front, and prompting me to laugh in their faces and instead buy a $7 Yoga DVD at Best Buy and hope for the best. 

Anyway, yeah, the nurse. She was all, “Oh! Cymbalta is a WONDERFUL drug! So many people love it! And it works so well! That’s a great drug to go on when you go off opioids!”  

But all I could think was, “Obviously you have never been on Cymbalta or opioids or had chronic pain, because Cymbalta sucks.”

cymbalta3.jpg

I always tell people I was tricked into starting the drug. 

My doctor, whom I really do love, put me on it about a year and a half ago. He brought it up at my first appointment with him -- the same appointment I also decided to confess that I was having suicidal thoughts daily. He told me he was putting me on Cymbalta because it had been shown to help with pain. I’d later find out that was only half the reason. 

When I went to a follow-up appointment, the doctor asked if  Cymbalta had helped with my pain at all. And because my pain is stronger than the U.S. military, it hadn’t. But, then came the reveal. 

“Well, how’s your mood?” he asked, slowly.  

“Actually, better,” I replied, realizing that had been his secret plan all along. 

But you know what? I can sincerely tell you that I didn’t want to kill myself anymore. I mean, I still thought about it, but the drug had sort of diluted the thoughts, and made them less of a legitimate option and more of a fleeting idea I had in passing. 

And I totally get why my doctor did what he did. Because when someone is suicidal, it just makes sense that staying alive is the one and only goal. So, in the beginning I was fine with whatever worked — and it just so happened that Cymbalta is what worked for me. 

Until it didn’t. 

Cymbalta was able to keep the suicidal thoughts away, but it also kept a lot of other thoughts away too. Like my creative thoughts, my writing thoughts and, honestly, my sex thoughts. The drug straight up slaughtered my sex drive.  

It also made me so tired. Like, sleep-for-16-hours-a-day tired. Yes, it had help from all the other drugs I’m on, but I can clearly tell you that the fatigue is worse than it was before I started taking Cymbalta.

So, a couple months ago I tried to go off it. I chose the only method I knew and cut it out cold turkey. Within just two days, my writing voice came back like the great flood. And I was getting turned on by my boyfriend again. I even got to see and understand 8 a.m. again for the first time in like a year. 

All was well with the world. Except when suddenly it wasn’t. Because Oh. My. God. The withdrawal symptoms from Cymbalta were hell. 

Less than a week after my last pill, I was getting so dizzy that I seriously thought I had a new disease. Then, there was this thing called the brain zaps, that I didn’t understand until they happened to me. In short, it literally felt like my brain was being, well, zapped by electricity. 

There was also nausea and vertigo and just an overall feeling of falling off a skyscraper. 

I can honestly tell you that going off Cymbalta was worse than going off any opioid I’ve ever been on. At least with opioids it only takes like 18 hours to get out of your system, and when it’s over, it’s over. Cymbalta lingered. It took it’s time with me. It gradually poured on the withdrawal symptoms in a tortuous piling on. 

So, a week after I went off it, I went back on it.

Apparently though, I’m not the only one staring down at a lifetime of daily Cymbalta doses. According to the Internet, (always a reliable source) there’s a possible class action lawsuit being brought against Eli Lilly.

“Studies show that between 50% and 78% of Cymbalta users experience antidepressant withdrawal symptoms after discontinuing the drug. Yet the drug label misleadingly states that Cymbalta withdrawal symptoms occur in only 1% to 2% of cases,” claims attorney Steven D. Gacovino.

You can read more about it here.

Now, I literally have no idea how legit this whole thing is. Can you really fill out a form on a random website and be part of  a class action lawsuit? I have no idea. But I can tell you that I totally submitted the form. 

If nothing else, doctors should be telling their patients about this. They should have a conversation that goes something along the lines of, “Hey, this drug might quell your suicidal thoughts, but you’re never going to be able to go off of it. I mean, you will, but it will be hell. You’ll probably get vertigo and brain zaps and you may not be able to stand up without falling over. Also, there’s no telling how long those withdrawal symptoms are going to last.”

If nothing else, patients deserve to know the truth. I deserved to know the truth.

Crystal Lindell is a journalist who lives in Illinois. She loves Taco Bell, watching "Burn Notice" episodes on Netflix and Snicker's Bites. She has had intercostal neuralgia since February 2013.

Crystal writes about it on her blog, “The Only Certainty is Bad Grammar.”

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.