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Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson on Wednesday announces a lawsuit against Arizona-based Insys Therapeutics, alleging the drug company illegally marketed an opioid painkiller. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)
Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson on Wednesday announces a lawsuit against Arizona-based Insys Therapeutics, alleging the drug company illegally marketed an opioid painkiller. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

Minnesota sues Arizona-based opioid maker

Minnesota’s attorney general is suing an Arizona-based pharmaceutical company, alleging it illegally marketed a painkiller made from the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday against Insys Therapeutics. The suit accuses the drugmaker of encouraging physicians to prescribe the painkiller Subsys at higher doses than recommended.

The Minnesota Board of Pharmacy has an action against the company in the office of administrative hearings seeking civil penalties and other relief.

The drug is used to manage pain for cancer patients, but Attorney General Lori Swanson says the company promoted it for improper uses.

The lawsuit also alleges the company paid doctors speaking fees to avoid gift-giving restrictions.

“To enrich its balance sheet, the company encouraged physicians to prescribe this highly-potent fentanyl product to patients who didn’t have cancer, even though it was only approved for severe breakthrough pain in cancer patients,” Swanson said in a press release.

“The company paid non-oncologists money to incertivize them to prescribe this drug. It called the payments ‘speaker fees’ to skirt a Minnesota law that prohibits pharmaceutical companies from paying gifts to doctors, even though the company was unable to provide evidence that some of the supposed ‘speeches’ had any audience other than the sales agent of physician’s office staff,” she continued.

Several other states have sued Insys. Some have reached settlements.

Minnesota health officials have growing concerns about fentanyl abuse. Preliminary numbers show that fatal overdoses caused by the potent narcotic are increasing, with the drug contributing to more than 150 deaths in the state last year.

County attorney surprised

This is not the first lawsuit in the state to address the opioid epidemic. Washington County Attorney Peter Orput has been called the catalyst behind multiple lawsuits against manufacturers and distributors, many of which are now part of federal multidistrict litigation in the northern district of Ohio.

About 20 counties and three tribes are involved and there are multiple lawsuits in other states. It is unclear whether the state’s lawsuit will be part of the MDL or stand alone.

Orput spearheaded a class-action lawsuit against nearly a dozen pharmaceutical companies and three major distributors to recoup the costs of dealing with the opioid epidemic. That suit has been joined by about 20 Minnesota counties and three tribes to date, Oprut said.

He expressed surprise—not to say chagrin—upon learning late Wednesday that Swanson had filed suit against Insys Therapeutics, an Arizona-based specialty pharmaceutical marketer that was “not even on our radar.”

“Why them?” Orput said. “Why now?”

Orput said he and others working with him on the larger class-action repeatedly asked Swanson to sign on—even take a leadership role—in that litigation. First contact was initiated four years ago, Oprut said. Each time, Swanson rebuffed the invitation, Orput said.

“There was no interest,” he said. “So we went ahead and did our own thing. We were disappointed that the [attorney general] wouldn’t join us.”

Orput also expressed disappointment at the Legislature’s failure to pass standalone legislation that would either increase licensing fees on the pharma industry for doing business in Minnesota or impose the governor’s penny-a-pill fee to help Minnesota recover its costs from the opioid epidemic.

In fact, Orput said, he’s a little frustrated with elected officials at the Capitol generally. “Some people are more concerned about political considerations than they are with the public health crisis,” he said.

Staff writer Kevin Featherly and The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.

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