COLUMBIA — Attorney General Alan Wilson announced a lawsuit against one of the largest pain pill manufacturers in the nation Tuesday, pulling a page from the playbook of other lawyers across the country.
The complaint filed by South Carolina's top attorney is aimed at Connecticut-based Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin — one of many synthetic opioids that have been manufactured, shipped, prescribed and sold throughout the United States.
"Opioid addiction is a public health menace to South Carolina," Wilson said as family members of overdose victims and addiction survivors stood behind him. "We cannot let history record that we stood by while this epidemic rages."
Wilson's legal challenge comes at a time when highly addictive prescription pills and deadly dosages of heroin continue to kill hundreds of South Carolina residents and tens of thousands of Americans every year. More than 565 South Carolinians died of an overdose tied to opioids in 2015, the most recent year that data is available.
The cost of the nationwide epidemic continues to strain health care systems, emergency response efforts and law enforcement agencies in nearly every state in the country. Wilson said the scourge has cost South Carolina billions of dollars.
Attempts to sue the pharmaceutical companies and wholesale drug distributors that have manufactured and shipped the prescription painkillers aren't new. Other states and local governments have filed numerous lawsuits in recent years seeking monetary damages for a public health crisis that has been building for years.
The Richland County lawsuit accuses Purdue of failing to comply with a 2007 agreement it signed with South Carolina and dozens of other states over allegations of its promotion of OxyContin. In announcing the lawsuit, Wilson accused the drug manufacturer of encouraging doctors to prescribe pain pills for unapproved uses and downplaying how addictive the company's prescriptions are.
According to numbers presented by the Attorney General's Office, South Carolina had the ninth-highest opioid prescribing rates in the country in 2016.
State Medicaid data shows that 1,855 prescriptions — or more than $1 million worth — of OxyContin reimbursed under the state-run insurance program last year. That number is down from the 3,620 prescriptions worth more than $2 million that were reimbursed in 2012.
"While we vigorously deny the allegations, we share South Carolina officials' concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions," Purdue Pharma said in a statement.
Wilson's action is the latest attempt by state lawmakers to get ahead of the epidemic. During the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers from some of the hardest hit counties in South Carolina pushed through a raft of legislation, including a law requiring physicians to check a state database before prescribing pain pills.
Many of those lawmakers are now holding hearings throughout the state as part of a new legislative attempt to address prevention and treatment efforts. The next public hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at Trident Technical College, 7000 Rivers Avenue, Building 920, in North Charleston.
Rep. Eric Bedingfield holding photo of his son who died of addiction. He's leading new committee on opioid addiction pic.twitter.com/89zyk3clK9— Andrew Brown (@Andy_Ed_Brown) August 15, 2017
State Rep. Eric Bedingfield, the chair of the new House Opioid Abuse Prevention Study Committee, stood beside Wilson as the attorney general announced the lawsuit. The Belton Republican held a large photo of his son, Josh Bedingfield, who died of an opioid-related overdose after struggling with years of addiction.
"This is a people problem. A problem that was once thought to be a moral issue," Bedingfield said. "This is not a moral issue in our society. This is a medical issue. These people have a disease, and they need to be treated with respect and dignity."
Wilson and Bedingfield are taking action to try to limit the death toll. But the conservative politicians say they don't believe the state or federal government can solve the epidemic that is now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50.
"You must understand that government can't fix this problem, and as Attorney General Wilson said a minute ago, a single lawsuit is not going to fix this problem," Bedingfield said.
South Carolina has received more than $9.7 million from the federal government in recent times to help increase access to overdose-reversing drugs and treatment options for those suffering from the body-wrenching effects of addiction. President Donald Trump has declared the epidemic a national emergency but hasn't announced any additional resources for the states.
There are still barriers to treatment in South Carolina. The stigma of addiction, the distance to treatment centers and public and private insurance rules continue to limit access to medication-assisted treatment options, which is the most scientifically proven way to wean people off of the heroin and prescription pills.
Wilson said any monetary damages awarded to the state through the lawsuit would be put toward expanding treatment efforts from the coast to the Upstate.
Mary Katherine Wildeman contributed to this report from Charleston.