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 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.

(Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this article, PNN incorrectly reported that Kolodny’s work in opioid litigation was not properly disclosed in two 2017 articles published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Kolodny’s work in opioid litigation apparently didn’t begin until after those articles were published and was disclosed in an April 2018 JAMA article. PNN regrets the error.

On September 4, 2019 Kolodny changed two of his JAMA disclosure statements to include his work as a paid expert in malpractice lawsuits. “I received compensation for work as an expert in malpractice litigation involving opioid prescribing. When the articles were first published, I did not believe this work could be perceived as a potential conflict of interest. My view has since changed. In the spirit of full transparency, I am requesting a correction to my disclosure statements.”)

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 on August 15, 2019, Fugh-Berman said she billed $500 an hour for her testimony in a pelvic mesh liability trial of Johnson & Johnson. She received about $120,000 for her work on the case to date.)

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.

Is Your Doctor Getting Money from a Drug Company?

By Pat Anson, Editor

Have you ever wondered why your doctor recommended a particular drug or treatment, when cheaper and better alternatives were available?

A treasure trove of data released by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) may help you get some answers. It shows that pharmaceutical and medical device companies paid nearly $6.5 billion to doctors and research hospitals in 2014, the first full year the companies were required to disclose the payments under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

You can see what your doctor was paid, if anything, by clicking here to search the CMS "Open Payments" database.

“Consumer access to information is a key component of delivery system reform and making the healthcare system perform better,” said acting CMS Administrator Andy Slavitt. “This is part of our larger effort to open up the health care system to consumers by providing more information to help in their decision making.”

About half of the $6.5 billion was for research, such as clinical trials to find new treatments for cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and other debilitating diseases.

Over $400 million went to doctors to reimburse them for meals, beverages, lodging and travels costs.

The Wall Street Journal dug into the data further and found some questionable items, including a trip to a Cayman Islands resort, tickets to Alcatraz, and a $65 airport massage.

But it’s the sheer scale of the payouts – over 11 million payments to over 600,000 physicians – that has critics wondering if prescribing practices and treatment decisions are being unduly influenced by money and gifts. The average physician received about $3,644 last year.

“No pharma companies spend this kind of money in a disinterested way,” Jason Dana, a professor at Yale School of Management told Bloomberg Business. “We have to know where the money is going to really understand the problem, to develop policy.”

Dana says doctors can be influenced by free meals and perks, even if they’re not consciously aware of it.

“If we have a financial incentive to believe something or conclude something, we kind of trick ourselves into thinking it’s true. And we’re not always aware we’re doing it,” he said.

Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin and several other painkillers, reported $5.8 million in research payments and $6.1 million in general payments to doctors -- modest amounts compared to what others companies paid.

Pfizer, the maker of Lyrica, reported at least $234 million in research payments and $53.3 million in general payments.

Eli Lilly, the maker of Cymbalta, paid over $137 million for research and $8.7 million in general payments.

The American Medical Association disputes a lot of this data, saying the “vast majority” was never vetted by physicians.

"The complicated and cumbersome process for physicians to register to review their data and seek correction of any inaccuracies continues to hinder their participation in the validation process," the AMA said in a statement.

Curious about your doctor? I was about our longtime family physician and searched his name in the CMS database.

I found nothing scandalous or suspicious, but there was a surprising amount of detail. I learned he received $707.59 in “food and beverage” and “informational meal” payments last year from AstraZeneca, Forest Pharmaceuticals, Eli Lilly, Pfizer and several other companies. What was on the menu is anyone’s guess, but what they talked about is duly noted.

For example, the arthritis drug Celebrex was discussed at a $12.60 meal that Pfizer paid for. And Eli Lilly bought a $11.74 meal for my doctor so he could learn more about the erectile dysfunction drug Cialis.

The most expensive item was a meal for $127.80 paid for by Shionogi, a Japanese drug company. The topic was Osphena, a post-menopausal drug for women to help them have pain free sex -- a discussion apparently reserved for only the finest of restaurants.