In the heart of West Virginia, which has become “ground zero” in the nation’s opioid crisis, the City of Charleston today joined Huntington, Kenova, and Ceredo in filing a lawsuit against the national commission that sets pain management standards for health care providers throughout the country. The lawsuit claims that the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care Organizations (JCAHO) grossly underestimated the dangers of opioid addictions in setting pain management standards in 2001 and that its resulting – and continuing – misinformation campaign led to over-prescribing opioids to patients.

The lawsuit is filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia and seeks to enjoin JCAHO and its wholly-owned affiliate from continuing their gross misrepresentation of the addictive qualities of opioids and fostering dangerous pain control practices, which has resulted in the inappropriate provision of opioids with disastrous adverse consequences for individuals, families, and communities in West Virginia and throughout the nation.

JCAHO sets standards and certifies virtually every health care organization in West Virginia and the United States, and health care providers rely on JCAHO certification and standards for their operations. In 2001, JCAHO announced a new set of Pain Management Standards. In the campaign to explain the standards, JCAHO spread misinformation about the addictive nature of opioids, including this statement among others: “Some clinicians have inaccurate and exaggerated concerns about addiction, tolerance and risk of death. This attitude prevails despite the fact there is no evidence that addiction is a significant issue when persons are given opioids for pain control.”

In an April 13, 2016 letter, more than 60 prominent health care professionals informed JCAHO that “the Pain Management Standards continue to encourage unnecessary, unhelpful and unsafe pain treatments that interfere with primary disease management”, and “foster dangerous pain control practices, the endpoint of which is often the inappropriate provision of opioids with disastrous adverse consequences for individuals, families and communities.”

According to Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), which built the coalition that sent the letter, JCAHO “responded defensively” and denied “any relationship between its Pain Management Standards and opioid overprescribing.”

The lawsuit seeks class action status in part to enjoin JCAHO from continuing to enforce these dangerous standards as accepted medical practice nationwide. It also seeks damages to remedy the impact of JCAHO’s continued promulgation and enforcement of the standards. The lawsuit is unique in its approach and is the product of on-going intensive research on how to stem the opioid crisis plaguing West Virginia and the rest of the nation.

“No cities have been hit harder by the national opioid crisis than we have been, and no municipalities have a greater motivation to find solutions and prevent further opioid addiction than we do in Charleston, Huntington, Kenova, and Ceredo,” said Charleston Mayor Danny Jones. “If The Joint Commission’s pain management standards – and explanations that accompanied them – had accurately disclosed, rather than misrepresented, the risks of opioids to patients and physicians, it would have discouraged the use of opioids instead of leading to the over-prescription of these drugs that have led to so much tragedy in our city and region.”

Noting that revisions to the standards set to take effect in 2018 still fail to disclose fully the dangers of opioids, Mayor Jones urged JCAHO to accept reality and further revise its standards immediately.

“Surely by now the Joint Commission must see the overwhelming evidence of how addictive opioids were, are and will be, and for these misguided standards to remain in place still today is reckless and irresponsible,” the Mayor added. “The opioid crisis touches nearly all of our citizens personally and has done significant damage to our city, region and state in so many ways. The Joint Commission’s misinformed standards bear responsibility for the pain we have experienced individually and collectively.”

The federal lawsuit is styled City of Charleston, West Virginia, City of Huntington, West Virginia, City of Kenova, West Virginia, and Town of Ceredo, West Virginia, municipal corporations, and other municipal corporations similarly situated, v. The Joint Commission f/k/a The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care Organizations & its wholly-owned affiliate Joint Commission Resources, Inc. d/b/a Joint Commission International, Civil Action No. 2:17-cv-004267. The Municipalities are represented in the suit by special counsel Talcott Franklin P.C., The Webb Law Centre, PLLC, and Forbes Law Offices, PLLC, joined by Paul Ellis, City Attorney of Charleston and Scott Damron, City Attorney of Huntington.