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WV cities sue accreditation agency over opioid ‘misinformation campaign’

By ERIC EYRE

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The cities of Charleston, Huntington and Kenova, along with the town of Ceredo, filed a class-action lawsuit against the nation’s largest health care accreditation agency Thursday, alleging the group took part in a “misinformation campaign” that downplayed the dangers of prescription painkillers.

The cities are suing The Joint Commission, a Chicago-based nonprofit that accredits more than 21,000 hospitals and other healthcare organizations in the United States.

The lawsuit alleges The Joint Commission teamed up with OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma and issued pain management standards in 2001 that “grossly misrepresented the addictive qualities of opioids.” The commission “zealously” enforced the standards through its accreditation programs, according to the complaint filed Thursday in federal court.

West Virginia hospitals that treated patients had to follow the pain standards to stay accredited. The standards led to a sharp increase in prescriptions for painkillers, fueling the ongoing epidemic, the lawsuit alleges.

West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation. Huntington and surrounding Cabell County had the highest overdose fatality rate in the state last year.

“This lawsuit is a critical move toward eliminating the source of opioid addiction and holding one of the most culpable parties responsible,” said Huntington Mayor Steve Williams. “For too long, [The Joint Commission] has operated in concert with opioid producers to establish pain management guidelines that feature the use of opioids virtually without restriction. The [commission’s] standards are based on bad science, if they are based on any science at all.”

The opioid crisis has increased crime, health care costs and emergency-response expenses, the cities say. Other cities and towns are expected to join the federal lawsuit. The commission certifies at least 10 hospitals and health care facilities in Charleston and Huntington.

“The [commission’s] conduct has unequivocally caused each municipality serious and ongoing harm,” the complaint says.

In July, The Joint Commission agreed to overhaul its pain management standards this year, but the cities allege the changes are too little, too late — the new standards don’t take effect until January. The hospital accreditation agency has yet to modify the standards “in way that would reduce the risks of addiction,” the complaint says.

A Joint Commission spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit.

Last week, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a national health emergency.

Charleston lawyers Rusty Webb and Jesse Forbes are leading the lawsuit against the accreditation agency.

Earlier this year, Charleston, Huntington and two dozen other municipalities filed suit against the nation’s largest drug distributors, alleging the companies shipped an excessive number of pain pills to pharmacies across the state.

Reach Eric Eyre at [email protected], 304-348-4869 or follow @ericeyre on Twitter.

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