Column: Drug companies don’t deserve immunity

Steve Bieda

In 1995 the Legislature voted to eliminate the rights of residents to sue pharmaceutical companies in the state. They passed an unprecedented law that prevents residents from gaining access to the civil justice system if they were harmed by dangerous drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration, with the limited exception that the drugmaker didn’t withhold information from the FDA.

The idea behind the product liability legislation, at the time, was to incentivize pharmaceutical manufacturers to move to Michigan and hire the best workers in the country. Unfortunately, we now know that the reality of what played out is much different.

When the Republican-controlled Legislature rolled out the red carpet to Big Pharma, Michiganians expected an economic boom from companies clamoring to find real estate and hire skilled Michigan workers. Instead, places like Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo saw pharmaceutical giant Pfizer leave the state within the years after the legislation was enacted, taking nearly 2,100 jobs with it.

Today, Michigan is the only state in the nation that has a drug industry immunity law that shields multinational pharmaceutical companies and their billionaire CEOs from legal recourse for marketing unsafe drugs that have led to patients being harmed and, in some cases, even killed.

We saw it happen in 2011, when the Michigan Supreme Court ruled the state could not sue Merck, the producer of Vioxx, an arthritis drug that doubled the risk of heart attacks and stroke. Its approval by the FDA prevented the state from suing on behalf of affected Medicaid users. It doesn’t have to be this way.

This law allows drug companies to escape accountability. It should be repealed.

In January, I introduced Senate Bill 28, which would repeal the language in the law that provides immunity to drug companies, and allow Michigan residents to sue these companies for damages. This is a bill that I’ve spent more than a decade working on, and that I’ve reintroduced every year because I believe that no one should have to lose a family member to boost a company’s bottom line.

In recent years, as drug companies have had an increasing amount of influence over FDA decision-making and policy, the FDA has failed to protect the public. The result has been perilous for all Americans, with the national-level opioid epidemic devastating communities across Michigan — including my home district of Macomb County.

According to the Macomb Daily, opioid-related deaths spiked 73 percent from 2012 to 2015, and in 2015 alone, more than three people died from opioid overdoses every week in Macomb County. Sadly, the problem is only getting worse.

Many of those who fell into opioid addiction through prescription, FDA-approved drugs like OxyContin have accelerated to hardcore street drugs like heroin for a variety of reasons. Now that street drugs are being cut with more potent, and lethal, chemicals, such as fentanyl, drug users are tragically dying faster than ever.

It’s past time pharmaceutical companies are held accountable for destroying families and communities. My legislation will help suffering families. We need to send a clear message to the prescription drug industry that we won’t stand for them putting profits over patients.

Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, represents Michigan’s 9th Senate district.