Cover Story: Protecting drug makers?

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) - North Carolina lawmakers are considering protecting the big drug companies from you.

North Carolina could become just the second state to protect the big drug companies from being sued.

It would mean full immunity for companies like Pfizer, Novartis, Merck, Johnson and Johnson. The list goes on.

Our lawmakers haven't voted yet, but they could decide to give these pharmaceutical companies protection from almost all lawsuits.

A lot of people say it's yet another way government is turning its back on the little guy. The patients. Sick people.

Supporters believe if the state can reduce the number of lawsuits then more companies will want to come to North Carolina - creating jobs and helping the economy.

But this effort at tort reform is attracting a lot of attention and it's becoming a heated debate.

The idea of the legislature considering a bill protecting drug companies from you suing them to many may seem preposterous.

The TV spots against the bill definitely get you.

TV ad says:  "Eight days after giving birth Tamara Ayers died of a heart attack.. caused by Parlodel. 30 women had already died taking Parlodel.. but they continued to sell it. This bill gives pharmaceutical companies that sell drugs like Parlodel legal immunity."

But Republicans swept into office last year on a pledge to create jobs and make the state more business friendly say the bill is needed.  They say it's part of an overall tort reform package that gets at lawsuits, frivolous and otherwise.

TV ad says:  "If you were on a jury.. would you want all of the facts. Or just the ones the lawyers want you to know? Under current law personal injury lawyers don't have to reveal the real cost of medical care.  And you pay in higher health care costs. Now if you were in the legislature.. wouldn't you fix that law?"

But the bill, part of the GOP reform agenda, some Republicans are apparently getting cold feet about especially the provision that protects drug manufacturers.

A vote scheduled in the House Wednesday was postponed.

If passed it would not allow anyone to sue any drug company if the drug has received prior FDA or government approval.

The bill's sponsor is Lincoln county Republican state representative Johnathan Rhyne.

"If we charge a governmental agency to figure out how a drug ought to be manufactured so that it is safe for our people and the drug companies manufacture it in strict compliance with what they've been told there shouldn't be any liability," said Rhyne.

But critics say FDA approval doesn't necessarily mean a drug is safe.

Vioxx for example, the arthritis drug approved by the FDA, was pulled off the market because of health risks in 2004.

Attorney General Roy Cooper says if the law goes on the books North Carolina won't be able to sue drug companies in the future.  Millions of dollars in settlements have been collected from drug companies over the past four years.

Others are questioning whether the legislation is needed.

Bobby Jenkins is a professor at the Charlotte School of Law.

He says, "These cases against drug companies are extremely difficult to bring. They are extremely expensive and most of the time wouldn't be brought unless you were dealing with somebody who really had either a very serious injury resulting from it or death resulting from it."

Only one state has a law that's like this on the books right now.  It's Michigan.  Its law was enacted in 1995 in an effort to keep drug companies from leaving the state.

In researching this today we couldn't find any evidence that this bill is directly tied to economic development or creating jobs.

The pharmaceutical industry is important to North Carolina and also a major contributor to political campaigns.

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