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Women Want State’s Help in Pelvic Mesh Fight

While thousands of women across the country are engaged in lawsuits against manufacturers of pelvic mesh implants, a Texas group is trying to get the state to take action against a company that makes the medical devices.

Aaron Leigh Johnson-Horton, founder of The Mesh Warrior Foundation, prepares gifts to mail to women with complications from a mesh implant at her home in Dallas, Texas on July 8, 2014.

*Correction appended. 

When Aaron Leigh Horton’s mother received a plastic mesh implant in 2009 to repair her pelvic organ prolapse, a type of pelvic floor disorder, she expected her pain to recede. Instead, her daughter says she was left bedridden, facing complication after complication that eventually resulted in the surgical removal of the implant. 

“She’s a fighter, but it takes everything you have to survive this injury,” said Horton, who founded the Mesh Warrior Foundation after her mother’s experience to provide support for women injured by their implants. 

Horton’s mother is among the thousands of women across the country who are engaged in lawsuits against manufacturers of pelvic mesh implants after suffering severe complications, including extreme pain, bleeding and infections. 

In Texas, a coalition of “pelvic mesh survivors” has asked Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is also the state’s Republican nominee for governor, to pursue legal action against Johnson & Johnson, one of the largest implant makers. The women say Johnson & Johnson violated a state law that prohibits deceptive business practices, citing the company’s “knowledge of the inherent danger” of the mesh implants and the cost to Texans of subsidizing care for women treated at taxpayer-funded facilities.

Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for the attorney general, declined to comment specifically on the matter, citing a continuing investigation. He said the state had been “engaged in the issue” since 2012 and that representatives from the attorney general’s office were serving on the executive committee of a coalition of states working on litigation against implant manufacturers.

Representatives for Johnson & Johnson did not respond to a request for comment, though company lawyers have argued in court that the implants were effective and that the company properly warned consumers about related risks. But patient advocates say mesh manufacturers are not doing enough to warn women about the severe complications they may experience.

Pelvic mesh implants are used to correct pelvic organ prolapse, which occurs when the reproductive organs or the bladder fall into a woman’s vagina because of weakened pelvic muscles. For years, surgeons have used the plastic mesh to help strengthen the pelvic wall and treat the condition, which is common among mothers and older women.

In its letter to the attorney general, the coalition said it was seeking action by his office because the AG has the “sole authority to conduct a comprehensive and thorough investigation” into whether Johnson & Johnson violated Texas’ consumer protection laws.

The Texas attorney general’s office has requested a vast amount of information on surgical mesh devices from Johnson & Johnson through a civil investigation demand sent to the company — a document obtained by The Texas Tribune through an open records request.

Texas women have also filed dozens of individual lawsuits against mesh manufacturers in federal courts across the country. The state’s investigation could benefit the women who have filed lawsuits because it may encourage the company to settle, said Jane Akre, who has organized patients who have had pelvic mesh implants for more than five years. 

Attorney Stephen Blackburn of the Dallas-based Baron & Budd law firm, which represents several women in mesh-related lawsuits, said he is “cautiously optimistic” that women will receive monetary compensation from manufacturers whose products have left some of them unable to sit or stand comfortably. But he said that would not be enough for women whose personal lives had been “destroyed” by the implant.

“The problem is there’s nothing that’s really going to compensate them for the pain and suffering they’re going through," Blackburn said. "There’s no amount of money you can put on the horror stories I’ve heard from women.”

Correction: A previous version of this story indicated that the removal of a mesh implant had left Aaron Leigh Horton's mother bedridden. Horton says it was the implant itself that left her mother bedridden. 

This story was produced in partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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