RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Suboxone has been marketed as a treatment drug that helps people who are addicted to opioids. It actually contains opioids. It's designed to treat withdrawal symptoms. But federal prosecutors say the drug itself is prone to abuse. Late Tuesday, the Department of Justice charged Indivior, the maker of Suboxone, with fraud and conspiracy. Brian Mann is a reporter with North Country Public Radio. He reports on the opioid crisis, and he joins us now.
Brian, what exactly are prosecutors charging? We say fraud and conspiracy. What else can you tell us about the charges?
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Yeah. They say this British company lied about the safety of Suboxone, claiming it was less prone to abuse. And the allegation here, really, is that Indivior's deceptive claims convinced a lot of health providers and insurers, like Medicare and Medicaid, to spend billions of dollars on their patented version of Suboxone rather than buying much cheaper, generic versions of the medication. An investigation by the Food and Drug Administration found Suboxone isn't actually safer. In fact, it may even be riskier in a lot of cases.
MARTIN: Which is really huge news because this was a drug that was seen to be a fix or at least something that was going to help people who were addicted to opioids, right?
MANN: Yeah. I mean, Suboxone is still widely used to treat people suffering from opioid dependency, prescription drugs and non-prescription opioids - designed to help with withdrawal symptoms and long-term maintenance. Medications like this are hugely important because so many Americans are addicted to opioids. But Suboxone itself contains opioids, and that means people sometimes abuse it too. And prosecutors say Indivior boosted profits illegally by setting up a system that connected people suffering from addiction with crooked doctors who were overprescribing Suboxone.
MARTIN: What's the company saying about these charges?
MANN: Well, they released a detailed rebuttal last night to these charges, saying the Justice Department is wrong on the science and on the facts. They say they've been an important and responsible player helping respond to the opioid crisis. Indivior promised they will - and this is their quote. They will "contest this case vigorously. We look forward to the full facts coming out in court," they say.
MARTIN: Several states are already suing big drug companies for their role in the opioid epidemic. Why is the momentum catching right now?
MANN: Yeah, so this is just a huge health crisis. The Centers for Disease Control say more than 200,000 Americans have died from prescription opioid overdoses that began after these companies like Indivior began aggressively marketing these drugs - more than a hundred Americans still dying every day. And so what we're seeing is state attorneys general and now federal agencies beginning to demand that drug makers and distributors pay for some of the damage they've caused. Just last month, Purdue Pharma settled with the state of Oklahoma for $270 million. That company has started talking openly about filing for bankruptcy. And federal prosecutors say if Indivior is found guilty in this case, the company should forfeit $3 billion. And the promise, Rachel, is that a lot of that money will go to help with drug treatment for, you know, things like rehab programs and law enforcement.
MARTIN: Brian Mann with North Country Public Radio.
Thanks so much, Brian. We appreciate it.
MANN: Thank you.
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