April 10, 2005
House Dems want to repeal Michigan law that protects drug makers
LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- State House Democrats want to allow residents hurt by a prescription medication to be able to sue drug makers for damages, something severely limited in Michigan. Democrats are expected to announce Monday a three-bill package of legislation that would repeal the state's 1996 law that shields drug makers from liability if their product was approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The legislation is retroactive, which would allow residents harmed by an FDA-approved drug since the old law took effect to file a lawsuit. "When it comes to protecting consumers from the drug industry, we're dead last," House Democratic Leader Dianne Byrum of Onondaga said in a statement obtained by The Associated Press. "It is shameful that Michigan residents who have been harmed by prescription drugs have no recourse simply because they live in our state." House Democrats said their bills are needed because of recent problems with drugs such as painkillers Vioxx and Bextra. Both drugs were pulled from the market after receiving FDA approval because of the possibility of serious and fatal side effects. The Michigan Trial Lawyers Association has said Michigan is the only state in the country to strictly limit lawsuits against producers of FDA-approved drugs. Such lawsuits only will stand up in a state court if they prove a company withheld or misrepresented information about a drug that would cause the FDA to not give or withdraw its approval. Byrum and two of her colleagues, Reps. Gary McDowell of Rudyard and Marie Donigan of Royal Oak, have requested the drug lawsuit legislation. They are scheduled to announce the measures at press conferences on Monday in Lansing, Flint, Royal Oak and Macomb County's Eastpointe. The bills likely will face some opposition in the House, where the GOP has a 58-52 majority. Some Republicans don't want to repeal of the 1996 drug lawsuit law for fear it will open the door to frivolous lawsuits that will prevent drug companies from investing in research and drive up insurance premiums and other business costs. A spokesman for Republican House Speaker Craig DeRoche of Novi said the House GOP only will support legislation that protects the health of patients and medical industry jobs. "The plan the Democrats are pushing looks on the surface more like a prescription for Geoffrey Fieger's financial health and not Michigan's public or economic health," DeRoche spokesman Matt Resch said. Some Republican House members, however, said they want to change the 1996 law. Rep. Ed Gaffney, an attorney and chairman of the House Health Policy Committee, said the current situation in Michigan isn't fair to people who have been hurt by taking federally-approved prescription drugs. "Maybe at one time the FDA did a better job than it is doing now, but regulators are never infallible," the Republican from Grosse Pointe Farms said. "The law just goes overboard. I believe in being fair to corporations as well as individuals." Republican Rep. Leon Drolet of Macomb County's Clinton Township said he also has asked for a bill to repeal the 1996 law. He said he would favor a requirement that would hand down a hefty financial penalty for lawsuits later ruled frivolous by the courts. The 1996 law was intended to safeguard the Upjohn Co., a Kalamazoo-based pharmaceutical that later folded into Pfizer Inc. Pfizer employs thousands of workers in Michigan. "Michigan has been a leader in tort reform, and it would be unfortunate if the state decided to step backward," Pfizer spokesman Rick Chambers said in a written statement. Attention focused again on the possible harmful side effects of some painkillers last week when Pfizer Inc. suspended sales of painkiller Bextra in the United States and the European Union. The company said that the FDA, in seeking Bextra's withdrawal, cited a risk of serious, sometimes fatal, skin reactions to Bextra on top of the risks shared by other similar drugs. In September, Merck & Co. voluntarily pulled Vioxx from the market after heart problems were reported in some users. Vioxx and Bextra were particularly popular among arthritis sufferers. Former Vioxx users Dr. David Cox of Grosse Pointe Woods and John Matznick of Owosso are among 13 people who filed lawsuits against the drug maker in New Jersey, the location of Merck's corporate headquarters, to seek damages for their physical ailments they attribute to Vioxx. Matznick, 55, said he started taking Vioxx four years ago and didn't stop until the drug was pulled off the market last fall. He said he may have to leave his job at the Delphi Corp. plant in Saginaw because of his health problems, which include two heart attacks since 2001. He said it is unfair that he cannot file a lawsuit against the drug maker in his home state. "I worked for General Motors and Delphi for 37 years and they have a guarantee on their cars. If something is wrong with it, you bring it back. If there's a problem, they do a recall," Matznick said. "If I have to be responsible for everything I do in life, (drug companies) should be held accountable for what they do."