The good fight: A U-M regent, Flint attorney goes to bat for opioid victims

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By Linda Laderman
Legal News

Like many Americans, Flint attorney and University of Michigan Regent Michael Behm knows people whose lives have been upended by their own or a family member’s opioid addictions.

Like most of us, I know someone who has been affected by opioid use. This is not a moral issue. These are good people who had a legitimate need to handle their pain,” Behm said.

In 2017, Behm, with two other attorneys, filed suit in federal court against opioid manufacturers and distributors on behalf of 50 Michigan counties and eight cities.

As the litigation winds its way through the courts, Behm said he believes that the big pharma companies, much like the tobacco manufacturers were, will ultimately be held responsible for their role in the nation’s opioid crisis.

“Our suit is very similar to the tobacco litigation in that big pharma companies were aware of the potential harm caused by medications, like Oxycodone, but continued to represent it to physicians as non-addictive pain relief,” Behm said.

Purdue Pharmaceuticals, a company that has recently gained widespread attention for its alleged reckless distribution of opioids, is one of the defendants in Behm’s case.

“From the late ‘90s to 2001, Purdue did over two billion dollars in sales. And that was just for Oxycodone,” Behm said.

Citing statistics that reflect an opioid consumption that out-numbers the U.S. population, Behm said, “The U.S. is 4.6 percent of the world population but we consume 80 percent of the global supply of Oxycodone. And over 130 people die every day in this country from an opioid overdose.”

Like the rest of the country, Michigan has been profoundly impacted by the rampant increase in opioid abuse, according to Boehm, who earned his law degree from Wayne State University.

“We’re representing these counties because they are the ones who take on the brunt of fixing the problems,” Behm said. “In Michigan, with a population of nearly 10 million people, there are 1.1 prescriptions written for opioids for every person in the state.”

Marketing tactics that urged consumers to ask their doctors for drugs they saw advertised on television, combined with uninformed drug reps, contributed to a toxic mix of unaware patients and misinformed doctors, Behm said.

“What happened in the early 2000s was drug reps would actively promote opioids to primary care physicians. They didn’t know about the addictive qualities of opioids so they encouraged doctors to prescribe on the basis that these pills were safe.”

It’s important to take into account how first responders are affected by the opioid epidemic, Behm said, as he recalled a conversation he had with a sheriff’s deputy at a recent meeting.

“Just the other day I was at a county board of commissioners meeting where one of the sheriff’s deputies told me how much he liked his new uniform because it provided pockets down the side to hold Narcan, which can cost  $800 a dose.”

“We’ve got to be able to compensate these counties to help tackle this problem so we can find a way for people to end their addiction to opioids,” Behm said.

Separate from his law practice is Behm’s commitment to U-M, where he is in the middle of his term as a regent.

“We’re definitely a Maize and Blue family,” Behm said of his allegiance to U-M.  “I earned my undergraduate degree there, my wife (Genesee County Judge Kay Behm) went to law school there, we have a son there, and our daughter was recently accepted to the U-M Stamps School of Art and Design.”

As a regent at one of the top schools in the nation, Behm said the ongoing national admissions scandal puts universities on notice that they must do better at recruiting students from more economically diverse communities.

To that end, U-M students who are academically qualified. but come from families with an income of $65,000 or less, are eligible for the “Go Blue Guarantee,” a plan that pays for four years of tuition at U-M.

“One of our biggest concerns over the last few years was to ask ourselves how we can get a more economically diverse student body,” Behm said. “That’s why we put together the Go Blue Guarantee. If you are a Michigan resident admitted to U-M, and if your family has an income of $65,000 or less, Michigan will pay your tuition for four years. Right now there are more than 1,700 students on campus who have qualified for the Go Blue program.”

Besides his involvement at U-M, Behm, along with his wife, Kay, are actively involved in community organizations that enrich children’s lives.

“My wife and I are Big Brothers and Big Sisters, and she is on its board,” Behm said of the nonprofit organization dedicated to youth mentoring. “I had a lot of great mentors, so I know how important it is to give kids a chance to find their purpose and achieve their goals. People always say, ‘Give back.’ I don’t really look at it like that. I just think it’s our responsibility to do what we can to make our communities better.”
 

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