GREENVILLE, S.C. (WSPA) – On Thursday, President Donald Trump declared the opioid problem a public health emergency.
While Trump was making his announcement, Federal agents were arresting the founder of the pharmaceutical company, Insys for an alleged opioid scheme.
A federal judge set bail at $1 million for John Kapoor Thursday, which he posted. However, an Upstate woman says the scheme he orchestrated made its way to Greenville County.
Drug experts in South Carolina say 41 million prescription pills make their way to Greenville County in a year. And, there are more prescriptions than there are people in the state, and experts say the opioid and addiction problem is growing.
Angela Cantone, who lives in the Five Forks area of Greenville County, says her addiction came unknowingly. Now, she wants the doctor, pharmacy, and pharmaceutical company held accountable.
Cantone filed a lawsuit with Greenville County June. The lawsuit names Greenville doctor, Aathi Thiyaga, the pharmaceutical company Insys, and the New York based pharmacy, Linden Care.
Cantone is suing for medical negligence, general negligence, negligent misrepresentation, unjust enrichment, common law fraud, a claim under the South Carolina Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act, aiding and abetting, and loss of consortium because she says she was prescribed a drug that wasn’t intended for her condition.
Cantone says she started seeing Dr. Thiyaga in 2011 for a hip injury that required pain management. She says she saw him for two years before he put her on Subsys. It was that medicine she says that changed her life.
“I was just told that this is a great new medication that was going to give me a new lease on life,” Canton said.
The FDA approved Subsys as an end-of-life cancer drug in 2012. The drug produced by Insys contains fentanyl, a drug 100 times more powerful than morphine.
Cantone was 29 when she was prescribed the drug. She stayed on it for two years. But, she’s never been a cancer patient.
“It wasn’t until after I stopped the medication that I found out what it was intended to treat,” Cantone said.
Cantone says when she first took the drug, it made her feel much better.
“You take an opioid for pain, you’re not necessarily going to get that euphoric effect, but if you’re taking something that’s too powerful, you’re going to get an incredible euphoric effect, and that’s where the addiction is going to come in,” Rich Jones, the CEO of FAVOR Greenville said.
Jones says people can get addicted to a drug like fentanyl within a week.
“I was looking forward to when my medication would come each month,” Cantone said. “I physically could feel when I would go a day without the medication…While you’re in that cycle, you don’t see it as being addicted to something because you’re just living.”
It didn’t take long for Cantone to feel the effects.
“I was fainting,” Cantone said. “I was suffering stroke like episodes where whole side of my body would be incapacitated.”
She says she went to several doctors but could never figure out what was wrong.
“I literally thought I was dying,” Cantone said. “I made arrangements.”
She says one doctor finally pointed out that her health problems could be pharmaceutically related.
“The big giant red flag was Subsys,” Cantone said.
The lawsuit says Insys would target doctors who were not oncologists and pay them kickbacks to prescribe Subsys by making these doctors part of their “Speakers program”.
“Unfortunately, they basically went to dinner with the Subsys drug rep, created a false roster of the people they supposedly spoke to, and they got thousands of dollars for doing that,” said Randall Hood, a Medical Malpractice & Pharmaceutical Injury Attorney.
Hood is Cantone’s lawyer. He says Thiyaga was the 10th highest paid doctor by Insys for Subsys across the country, earning more than $200,000 over two years.
“Essentially, they were drug dealers with a white coat,” Hood said.
7News went to Thiyaga’s Greenville office. His staff said he wouldn’t be back in the office until next month but wouldn’t give a day. 7News was able to reach Thiyaga by phone. He said he did not have a comment about the lawsuit, but he did admit to getting paid by Insys; however, he says that money was for speaker fees.
7News also reached out to Insys. A representative told us they do not comment on ongoing litigation, but they did refer us to a release they sent out after a $4.5 million settlement was made in New Jersey after a woman died from using Subsys.
The company says:
We would like to reiterate that we continue to work with relevant authorities to resolve issues related to inappropriate actions taken by some of our former employees. Accordingly, we have taken a series of major actions to prevent the mistakes of the past from happening in the future.
With respect to the complaint filed by the New Jersey Attorney General this week, SUBSYS® (fentanyl sublingual spray) represented about 0.02 percent of the opioid prescriptions written in the United Statesin 2016, consistent with the numbers in N.J., placing INSYS below the top 50 manufacturers of opioids in the nation.
In addition, the company is under new management and has replaced 90 percent of the original sales force and commercial organization. While understandable, it’s disingenuous to repeatedly demonize a company that has made a firm and sincere commitment and is taking all the necessary steps to conduct business according to high ethical standards. It’s also unfair to the company’s current employees, most of whom are new to INSYS and had no involvement in the past misdeeds.
Since it was created in 2012, Insys has made almost $900 million off of Subsys.
“They took good working individuals, good parents, good spouses, and turned them into drug addicts just to put money in their pockets,” Cantone said.
Cantone is not alone in her fight. South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson filed a lawsuit in August against Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, for deceptive marketing.
“It’s just one tool that we have to help fight the opioid addiction,” Wilson said.
While Wilson wouldn’t say if his office has looked into Insys, he did say nothing is off the table when it comes to investigating opioid abuse.
“When you continue to market the drug, knowing it doesn’t treat what you’re marketing it for, or that it is more addictive than you’re saying it is, then that is a violation of South Carolina law, and we will come after you for that,” Wilson said.
Wilson agrees with Canton and her lawyer that people need to start being held accountable for the rising addiction problem. However, Hood has a message for future patients.
“Investigate the doctor, investigate the drugs that you take, know the drugs you take, and feel comfortable with the trust you have with a doctor,” Hood said.
For Cantone, however, the effects are forever.
“I have survived subsys,” Cantone said. “It’s a work in progress. You have to spend the rest of your life focusing on staying sober, hoping you don’t fall into another trap.”
Thiyaga has closed two of his offices in Anderson and Easley.
On October 17, Thiyaga was set up to practice in New York as a pain medicine doctor.
Last month, a Greenville County judge denied Insys’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
Litigation continues in Cantone’s case.