West Virginia municipalities file suit against Joint Commission for its part in opioid crisis

Hydrocodone opioid pills
West Virginia municipalities have filed the first lawsuit that targets The Joint Commission for playing a role in the opioid epidemic. (Getty/smartstock)

Officials in West Virginia, one of the states hardest hit by the country’s opioid epidemic, have filed a lawsuit against The Joint Commission, charging it played a role in the deadly drug crisis.

While government officials have filed lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies, saying they helped fuel the opioid crisis, this is the first legal action that targets the healthcare accreditor. The lawsuit (PDF) brought by the cities of Huntington, Charleston and Kenova and the town of Credo says The Joint Commission’s pain standards encouraged doctors to prescribe opioid painkillers.

The lawsuit says the accreditor teamed with Purdue Pharma, which makes OxyContin, and other opioid manufacturers to issue pain standards in 2001, as well as related documents, that “grossly misrepresented” the addictive qualities of opioids and fostered dangerous pain control practices. That resulted in the often inappropriate provision of opioids with disastrous consequences for individuals, families and communities, the lawsuit said.

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Until this legal action, government officials had targeted drug manufacturers and distributors, seeking to hold them financially responsible for the cost of public services related to drug addiction. West Virginia has the country’s highest drug death rate.

The lawsuit says the nonprofit Joint Commission certifies the healthcare organizations in the area where the municipalities’ residents receive healthcare, including 10 area hospitals. The lawsuit says the accreditor misrepresented the risks of opioid addiction in its standards, as well as published materials underwritten by opioid manufacturers.

“This lawsuit seeks to change standards that encourage the overprescription of opioids,” Scott Damron and Paul Ellis, the city attorneys who represent Huntington and Charleston, respectively, in the lawsuit, said in a statement to Fierce Healthcare.  “If The Joint Commission pain management standards discourage rather than encourage opioid overprescription, that becomes a choke point for preventing new addictions. The Joint Commission needs to stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution, and we fear that will never happen without this lawsuit.” 

RELATED: Critics call for changes in Joint Commission pain standards and hospital patient surveys

It’s not the first time that The Joint Commission has faced blame in the opioid epidemic. The accreditor came under fire in 2016 from critics who called for changes in its standards, saying they foster dangerous prescribing practices by physicians. The Joint Commission responded that its detractors have many “misconceptions” about what it requires of healthcare organizations.

RELATED: Joint Commission says critics have 'misconceptions' about pain standards

However, in August the accrediting agency answered with new and revised pain standards in its accreditation manual and said addressing pain assessment and management is “a critical patient safety and quality concern.” The lawsuit criticizes the accreditor for not making those changes immediately, but delaying implementation of the new pain standards until Jan. 1, 2018.

The Joint Commission did not respond to a request from FierceHealthcare for comment on the lawsuit.

President Donald Trump last month officially declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, loosening restrictions on telehealth addiction treatment and prescribing.