Bitter pill

Jun 22, 2005 at 12:00 am

State reps on both sides of the aisle are writing out prescriptions for change that could bring an end to Michigan’s draconian laws granting immunity to the drug industry.

Under current Michigan law, residents cannot sue any pharmaceutical company whose drug has been approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration. Michigan is the only state in the country where residents have no such right — even in cases where pharmaceuticals have caused serious injury or death.

The laws, passed during the ever-so-enlightened administration of Gov. John Engler in 1996, shield drug companies from claims against such notoriously dangerous prescription drugs as Vioxx, which was found to have caused heart damage.

Now, Democrats and Republicans are pushing to protect consumers from what they see as FDA indifference and the outright greed of the pharmaceutical industry.

State Rep. Dianne Byrum (D-Onondaga) has already introduced legislation that repeals immunity for drug companies to be sued. State Rep. Marie Donigan (D-Royal Oak), meanwhile, will introduce a bill in the coming weeks allowing drug industry victims to sue pharmaceutical companies for not identifying risks associated with their drugs.

“The victims are the people of Michigan,” Byrum says. “It’s just wrong.”

Even some Republicans feel the law is patently unfair. State Rep. Leon Drolet (R-Clinton) has introduced legislation repealing the law and Ed Gaffney (R-Grosse Pointe) is currently drafting a similar bill.

Engler, in his present role as president of the National Association of Manufacturers, has been touting Michigan’s drug immunity law nationwide, saying it should be the law of the land. He says states allowing legal action against drug companies promote frivolous lawsuits at the expense of business growth.

Engler would not speak with News Hits on the matter. Spokeswoman Beth Solomon said that he will not “talk about business unless it pertains to manufacturing right now.”

Donigan expects opposition — not just from shills for the pharmaceutical industry like Engler, but also from intense lobbying by the drug industry itself. “I imagine there will be a fight and that there will have to be pressure from the public,” she says.

Much will depend on the legislative agenda of House Speaker Craig DeRoche (R-Novi). His spokesman Jason Brewer says DeRoche’s “biggest concern is that we not do something that would increase the cost of prescription drugs.”

A group of Michigan residents suffering from FDA-approved drugs has formed to push legislative reforms. They call themselves Drug Industry Immunity Must End, or DIIME. It consists of about 12 people.

Larry Shoemaker, an elevator installation worker from Fenton and one of the founding members of DIIME, says he was in good physical shape his whole life — until he began using Vioxx. After three years of taking the drug, he had open-heart surgery.

“Our point is that the makers of drugs like Vioxx didn’t give us the information to make an informed decision,” Shoemaker says. “When drug companies knowingly have a bad product on the market, they should be held accountable.”

Want to contribute your DIIMES-worth, so to speak, to the effort? Contact the group by going to its Web site at or phone 269-373-5574.

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