Several West Virginia cities have filed a federal lawsuit against a nonprofit that accredits United States health care organizations, accusing the company of downplaying the effects of opioids through its recommended pain management standards.

The cities of Huntington, Charleston, Kenova and Ceredo joined in filing the suit against the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care Organizations and its international branch, Joint Commission International. The complaint accuses those agencies of a "continued misinformation campaign" and encouraging the over-prescription of opioids, which helped fuel the area's drug epidemic.

It alleges the group colluded with opioid manufacturers to misrepresent the addictive qualities of opioids to increase production.

The lawsuit is a separate action from a January lawsuit filed by Huntington against several drug firms that dozens of cities have alleged fueled the area's drug epidemic by pumping the state with opioid pills before reducing shipment amounts.

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said the latest lawsuit was the next step in the city's mission to fight against the opioid epidemic.

"For too long, JCAHO has operated in concert with opioid producers to establish pain management guidelines that feature the use of opioids virtually without restriction," he said.

"The JCAHO standards are based on bad science, if they are based on any science at all."

According to a joint press release from the cities, the JCAHO announced in 2001 a new set of pain management standards and started a campaign to explain the standards. The cities accuse JCAHO of spreading misinformation about the addictive nature of opioids.

The misinformation allegedly included statements like, "Some clinicians have inaccurate and exaggerated concerns about addiction, tolerance and risk of death. This attitude prevails despite the fact there is no evidence that addiction is a significant issue when persons are given opioids for pain control."

The Huntington area has since been labeled as one of the hardest hit areas of opioid and heroin addiction in the United States. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, people who are addicted to prescription opioid painkillers are 40 times more likely to become addicted to heroin.

In April 2016, JCAHO received a letter signed by 61 prominent health care professionals who are part of the Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, claiming the accrediting agency's pain management standards encouraged unnecessary, unhelpful and unsafe pain treatments that interfered with primary disease management, the press release alleged.

JCAHO allegedly responded with a denial of any correlation between its pain management standards and opioid overprescribing.

According to the criminal complaint, filed in the Southern District of West Virginia, JCAHO agreed to change its standards in July 2017, but the changes will not take effect until January. Still, the plaintiff cities say the new standards do not properly address the alleged over-prescribing issue.

The lawsuit is seeking class action status to prevent JCAHO from continuing to enforce alleged dangerous standards. The cities are requesting damages to remedy the alleged impact of those standards.

The city of Huntington is represented in the lawsuit by special counsel Talcott Franklin P.C., The Webb Law Centre PLLC and city attorney Scott Damron.

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.

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