THE JPML HAS BEEN REQUESTED TO CONSOLIDATE A NEW ADDICTED INFANT MULTIDISTRICT LITIGATION
By Mark A. York (September 21, 2018)
Have the most vunerable plaintiffs in the opiate litigation been underserved by firms primarily focused on representing governmental entities in Opiate MDL 2804 and state court consolidations? What about the epidemic of NAS affected babies who have been born addicted to prescription opiates?
(MASS TORT NEXUS MEDIA) Lawyers representing addicted infants in the opiate litigation have now filed a Motion for Transfer and Consolidation of Children Born Opioid Dependent with the JPML on September 21, 2018. To read the entire JPML Motion and Brief in Support, see our briefcase Re: masstortnexus.com/News/4335/Motion-for-New-Infant-NAS-Opioid-Dependant-MDL-Filed-With-JPML-September-20-2018.
Plaintiffs lawyers have also filed class actions in nine states on behalf of infants, and other “individuals” affected by opiate use and subsequent addiction, with very limited input into the federal litigation process. On May 21, 2018 a coalition of nine law firms filed court papers asking MDL 2804 Judge Dan Polster (USDC ND Ohio) for permission to request a separate discovery and litigation track for the baby cases, which was summarily denied without comment by the court on June 28, 2018.
Lawyers and public health officials have estimated that there could be more than 1 million babies diagnosed with “neonatal abstinence syndrome,” which occurs when infants are born to mothers who used opioids. There is a request seeking a trust of more than $1 billion to help pay for medical monitoring of the children over the next few decades.
“There has been no large-scale attempt to find out what happens to these children, and there are thousands at this time, perhaps over 1 million, progressing now through the school system and growing up,” said Scott Bickford, a principal at Martzell, Bickford & Centola in New Orleans. “Theoretically, these kids are born addicted and may stay addicts for life.”
Treatment and Prognosis for Opioid Addicted Newborns
The course of treatment will be determined by factors such as:
- Baby’s gestational age, medical history, and health
- Severity of the disorder and expectation of the effects it will have
- Baby’s tolerance of the therapies, procedures, or medications
- Parents’ preference
Immediate treatment for withdrawal effects focuses on comfort and thriving. Babies suffering from opioid withdrawal often have trouble resting and eating, so treatment involves:
- Swaddling for comfort
- Adding extra calories to account for energy used through restlessness and increased activity
- Intravenous fluids for dehydration
- Medication to relieve discomfort and eliminate symptoms like seizures
Long-term treatment involves treating physical and behavioral effects and can involve:
- Monitoring and treating vision and hearing impairments
- Therapy for behavioral problems
- Language therapy
- Treatment for chronic ear infections
- Interventions for cognitive deficits
- Treatment for sleep disturbance
Babies are the latest segment of the opioid epidemic to attempt to get a front-row seat in the legal case against manufacturers and distributors. More than 1,000 lawsuits have been coordinated in multidistrict litigation in Cleveland before U.S. District Judge Dan Polster of the Northern District of Ohio, who has allowed a limited amount of discovery to go forward, (see Mass Tort Nexus Briefcase OPIOID-National-Prescription-Litigation-MDL-2804-USDC-Northern-District-of-Ohio) for case docket information.
The vast majority of plaintiffs are cities and counties seeking to recoup the costs of medical treatment and law enforcement, but Native American tribes, hospitals and others have elbowed into the case. New plaintiffs are emerging, such as class actions—including eight filed this week—filed on behalf of individuals alleging the opioid epidemic caused their health insurance premiums to skyrocket.
At least 11 cases have been brought on behalf of babies, many of whom suffer from addiction and learning disabilities. Bickford said the cases are in states that have medical monitoring laws, which include New York and California. According to the case filed in New York Supreme Court for Niagara County, for instance, lifetime medical costs could include treatment of developmental, psychiatric, emotional or behavioral disorders associated with addiction.
THIS IS A MUCH BIGGER PROBLEM
Dr. Shawn Hollinger, neonatologist at Niswonger Children’s Hospital, cradled baby Jayden’s head in an effort to comfort him. After 35 days in the neonatal intensive care unit, Jayden was ready to go home.
The number of children needing intensive treatment for NAS has become so overwhelming that the hospital opened a new ward this year just to care for them. Since 2009, hospital staff have treated over 1,800 babies with NAS. In the past 12 months, Hollinger has seen 351 infants with NAS come through the NICU.
After birth, children exposed to drugs in the womb experience a multitude of symptoms, including tremors and seizures. Even after being released from the hospital, some children may still have to be treated with medication and physical therapy. It can cost upwards of $60,000 to treat one baby.
“The intent would be to construct a trust that would deliver financial assistance directly to the custodians of these children,” he said. Custodians could include other family members, foster parents or birth parents who have kicked the habit, he said.
The defendants in all the baby cases include opioid manufacturers Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Endo Health Solutions and Teva Pharmaceuticals, as well as distributors McKesson Corp., AmerisourceBergen Corp. and Cardinal Health Inc. The New York complaint also named Insys Therapeutics Inc.
Johnson & Johnson spokeswoman Wanda Moebius wrote in an email: “Our actions in the marketing and promotion of these medicines were appropriate and responsible. The labels for our prescription opioid pain medicines provide information about their risks and benefits, and the allegations made against our company are baseless and unsubstantiated. In fact, our medications have some of the lowest rates of abuse among this class of medications.”
Endo spokeswoman Heather Zoumas Lubeski said, “We deny the allegations contained in these lawsuits and intend to vigorously defend the company.”
Representatives of the other defendants either did not respond or declined to comment.
It’s not the first time the coalition of law firms tried to get Polster to create a separate “baby track.” On June 28, the judge denied an earlier request.
“We’ve asked the court to reconsider our motion for a separate baby track for babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome,” Bickford said. “We don’t think the present MDL and the people in it who essentially represent state and local governments really have the children’s interests at heart.”
The plaintiffs’ executive committee in charge of the opioid MDL has refused to provide information about discovery and depositions, he said. His request described the discovery process as operating under a “cloak of secrecy” and included an attached email exchange in which executive committee member Jayne Conroy of Simmons Hanly Conroy called his request to monitor depositions “not necessary” and “burdensome.”
Conroy said in a statement: “All our legal efforts are directed at the companies who caused the opioid epidemic. Any success will benefit all victims.”
Earlier this summer, the Judge charged with control over the federal MDL involving government entities’ claims against opioid manufacturers and distributors rejected a request for the inclusion of NAS baby cases within a special litigation track. The request would create a nationwide medical monitoring trust fund for NAS babies within the existing MDL litigation regarding prescription opioid
On May 31, 2018 counsel for the baby/NAS addicted plaintiffs filed a Motion for Leave to Establish a Separate Track for Opioid Baby Claims, with the court denying the request via text order entry below.
|06/28/2018||Order [non-document] denying Motion for leave to File Motion for Order to Establish Separate Track for Opioid Baby Claims filed by Melissa Ambrosio, Darren Flanagan, Elena Flanagan, Ceonda Rees, Deric Rees, Virginia Salmons, Walter Salmons, Roxie Whitley, Rache l Wood(Related Doc # 540 ). Judge Dan Aaron Polster (MDL 2804) on 6/28/18.(P,R) (Entered: 06|
Court Response to Previous Attempt to Get a Baby Track in Opiate MDL 2804
Tens of thousands of infants born in the U.S. each year now have NAS, and a recent Centers for Disease Control report said the rate of NAS deliveries at hospitals quadrupled during the past 15 years.
The period of hospitalization for NAS infants averages 16 days and hospital costs for a typical newborn with NAS are $159,000–$238,000 greater than those of healthy newborns, according to the attorneys representing the NAS babies.
Dr. Kanwaljeet J. S. “Sunny” Anand, the nation’s foremost expert on opioids in infants and a Professor of Pediatrics, Anesthesiology, Perioperative & Pain Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, is a medical expert to the legal team. “There is an unprecedented epidemic of opioid addiction sweeping across the U.S.,” said Dr. Anand. “Newborn babies are the most vulnerable citizens, their lives and developmental potential are disrupted by NAS, but arrangements for their short-term and long-term care have been ignored until now. These babies need strong advocacy and legal action to ensure that their rights are protected, and that they urgently receive essential medical care and rehabilitation. On average, one infant with NAS is hospitalized every hour in the U.S.”
Named as defendants in the class actions are an array of pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors and retailers, all of whom netted billions of dollars due to unfair and deceptive trade practices that preyed on all Americans, including the unborn, say the attorneys.
“A medical monitoring fund would document and address the medical problems these children will have to face for a lifetime,” said Mr. Bickford. The filing today objects to current settlement negotiations engaged by the opioid MDL which ignore the NAS babies’ interests.
“Legal precedent recognizes the difference between present and future claims in negotiations of this magnitude,” said Mr. Bickford. “Without being at the table, the legal representatives of NAS babies and children will not be heard and the due process rights of these infants and children will be denied.”
The filing says only government, hospital and third-party payors are at the table in negotiating a settlement through the MDL, though no agreement has yet been reached. The attorneys representing the NAS babies have raised concerns that outcomes similar to the Tobacco MDL settlement, where money was diverted to state budget deficits instead of the intended victims, might happen here.
Born to women addicted to drugs, newborns suffer through withdrawal
Babies suffering through opioid withdrawal have a distinct way of crying: a short, anguished, high-pitched wail, repeated over and over. It echoes through the neonatal therapeutic unit of Cabell Huntington Hospital in Huntington, West Virginia. A week-old girl has been at it, inconsolably, since six o’clock this morning. At 10 o’clock Sara Murray, the unit’s soft-spoken, no-nonsense nurse manager, sighs. “This may be a frustrating day,” she says.
The opioid epidemic in the United States is painfully evident in hospital newborn units across the country. In 2012 nearly 22,000 babies were born drug dependent, one every 25 minutes, according to the most recent federal data. As the opioid crisis has escalated dramatically over the past five years, those numbers have surely climbed.
West Virginia, at two and a half times the national average, has the highest rate of deaths from drug overdose—mostly from opioids. Cabell County, which averaged about 130 overdose calls to 911 annually until 2012, received 1,476 calls last year and is on pace to reach around 2,000 this year. Emergency workers saved many of those people, including an 11-year-old, but inpatient treatment programs have long waiting lists. At Cabell Huntington Hospital, one in five newborns has been exposed to opioids in the womb.
“What you’re seeing here is the tip of the iceberg of substance use,” says neonatologist Sean Loudin, the unit’s medical director.
In 2012 the neonatal intensive care unit became so overwhelmed by drug-dependent babies that it had to turn away newborns with other medical needs. The hospital opened this specialized unit to treat withdrawal. It typically has 18 babies. On this day there are 23.
The babies shake, sweat, vomit, and hold their bodies stiff as planks. They eat and sleep fitfully. Swaddled, they lie in bassinets or in the arms of nurses, parents, or volunteers. The place doesn’t have the hustle or beeping machinery of an ICU. Instead there are dim lights and hushed conversations because the babies need calm and quiet. Many also need methadone or other medication to relieve their symptoms. They are weaned from it over days or weeks.
“OK,” Murray whispers to a bleating 41-day-old boy. She gently lifts him to her chest, cradles him firmly, and places a green pacifier in his mouth. He sucks it fast and hard, like a piston.
Opioids pass readily from a pregnant woman’s bloodstream through the placenta and across the fetal blood-brain barrier. When birth abruptly shuts down the flow of the drug, the baby’s nervous system can trigger the agitating symptoms of withdrawal. Studies show that 55 percent to 94 percent of newborns exposed to opioids develop symptoms. Prenatal exposure to other widely used drugs, including benzodiazepines and certain antidepressants, also can lead to withdrawal shortly after birth.
The condition is called neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). Experts don’t consider it to be addiction, which, by definition, means a person persists in compulsive drug use despite terrible consequences. By the same logic, NAS is also a misnomer—abstaining, or just saying no, is different from experiencing the physical anguish of withdrawal. But medical experts have come to accept the NAS label because it’s less fraught with stigma than words like “addiction” and “withdrawal.”
In some cases the mothers themselves are in recovery. They didn’t misuse opioids during pregnancy but took methadone or buprenorphine, the frontline medications for treating opioid addiction. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends their use during pregnancy despite the risk of NAS, for the obvious reason that sobriety is safer and healthier for a woman than shooting heroin or popping painkillers or trying to go cold turkey on her own. It’s also much better for her child. But encouraging as it is, the growing use of medication-assisted addiction treatment means that even when the opioid crisis eases, hospitals like Cabell Huntington will continue to be swamped with babies in withdrawal.
To manage the condition, most hospitals use an assessment tool developed at the height of the heroin outbreak in the 1970s. Babies are rated every four hours on the severity of 31 symptoms, including excessive crying, sweating, tremors, and frequent yawning. The scores help doctors determine whether to put babies on methadone or other medication. In most cases the scores support drug therapy. Now some researchers are challenging that approach.
“It’s archaic,” says Elisha Wachman, a neonatologist at Boston Medical Center and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine. “What ends up happening is that babies get overmedicated.” Too often, she says, they experience withdrawal from their treatment, which prolongs their misery and their hospital stay.
A handful of researchers around the country are revamping NAS treatment to rely less on medication and more on parental bonding. Wachman has abandoned the old score sheet for assessing the babies. “I couldn’t care less how many times they yawn,” she says. Instead, she evaluates them on just three measures: eating, sleeping, and being consoled. Rather than transfer babies to an ICU or a specialty unit, Boston Medical Center keeps them with their moms throughout their stay. Wachman encourages the women to breastfeed and clutch their babies skin to skin. One hundred fifty volunteers—most of them medical students and hospital employees—put in two-hour shifts as cuddlers. The waiting list to hold babies has 200 names.
Before the hospital changed its approach, 86 percent of the babies with NAS it treated received medication. Now it’s 30 percent. The babies generally spend nine days in the hospital, down from 19 days under the old protocol. The average cost of a hospital stay for a baby with NAS is $19,655 at Boston Medical Center, compared to a national average of $67,000.
Wachman says sound treatment for the babies must go hand in hand with compassionate, comprehensive care for their mothers. The medical center runs a prenatal clinic for women with addiction. The obstetricians prescribe buprenorphine and prepare women for the possibility that their babies will have NAS. The clinic also offers counseling, social services, psychiatric help, peer support, and education about infant care. “When the moms come in to deliver, they’re in the best shape they can be,” Wachman says. In July the medical center opened a clinic that provides pediatric care for babies born with NAS and addiction services for their mothers.
It’s not clear how opioid exposure affects long-term brain development. Surprisingly little research has been done, and most of it predates the current crisis and the widespread use of highly potent synthetics, such as fentanyl. Some studies show subtle cognitive and behavioral differences among children who were exposed to opioids before birth, but the problems are less severe than the intellectual and attention deficits associated with fetal alcohol exposure. The studies don’t answer a key question: Do the neurodevelopment issues stem from drug exposure or poverty or other chronic stresses? Some researchers believe that social factors and a stable environment are bigger influences on a child’s future than NAS.
“We keep hearing about the babies, and that it is important, but there needs to be much more of a focus on women and making sure they’re taken care of well,” says Uma Reddy, a maternal-fetal medicine expert at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Mass Tort Nexus will provide updates on the Infant NAS MDL request to the JPML as well the Opiate Prescription MDL 2804 on a daily basis.
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