EDITORIAL: County should sue opioid makers

HOW MUCH IS A DRUG abuse epidemic worth? It’s not quite the same as asking what we spend to respond to the needs of people in this county addicted to heroin and opioids. But now a committee of the county Board of Supervisors has been approached with a plan that might pay for some of the impacts of drug addiction.

Too good to be true? The plan comes from law firm with offices all over the country. One of the firm’s lawyers spoke to the Health and Human Services Committee late last month and offered to file suit on behalf of the county against several major drug manufacturers and a handful of physicians. Her firm believes the companies and the docs misrepresented or hid the risks of their opioids, powerful pain medications, leading patients to become addicted to those legal drugs and then to illegal drugs. The drugs named in the firm’s suits include OxyContin and fentanyl.

One similar case has been settled and the firm is busy lining up other municipal plaintiffs, including Dutchess, Suffolk and Orange counties in New York. One of the attractions of the proposal is that the law firm, Simmons Hanly Conroy, LLC, will not charge the county for the suit until unless there is a judgment or a settlement in the case. It wouldn’t put county taxpayers on the hook for big legal fees with nothing to show for the money. So what’s not to like?

This suit feels like a way to get even with Big Pharma, the nickname for companies we love to hate because they charge U.S. customers way more for drugs that the same companies sell overseas for reasonable prices. We hate them because they convince us to new buy drugs that promise cures and then whisper warnings that taking these medicines can turn your insides to jelly “in a small number of cases.” And now we can blame them for the rise in addiction. They’re an easier target than foreign cartels and lawmakers who won’t regulate prices.

Let’s assume this suit could claw back some of the costs associated with opioid addiction. That would feel like a small victory in this public health challenge. But it won’t solve the problem.

Agreeing to become a plaintiff in a suit against the Big Pharma opioid industry could yield one positive result, win or lose. It may require the county to measure the actual costs of addiction. The lawyers probably have a formula for the loss of a life to an overdose and the state has statistics on drug-related hospital stays and the number of times naloxone, the overdose antidote, is used here. But how do we assess the disruption to families in dollars? Or the stress on responders or lost productivity or jail and prison time? What are those worth?

And what about drug abuse treatment? If Congress and the president adopt the healthcare bill now in the Senate, Medicaid payments would be capped. Millions of people across the country will lose their health insurance. Medicaid and private insurance are the way most people pay for drug treatment. We know that treatment often doesn’t work the first or second… or third time. Maybe this suit will answer the question of whether treatment is more efficient than abandoning drug users to find their own way to a cure or death.

Compiling opioid addiction data might clarify what’s happening with what we call the opioid “crisis” or the opioid “epidemic” without defining what those terms mean. But regardless of how well the county prepares, a jury will have to decide whether Columbia County deserves compensation, and Big Pharma has already mounted legal and PR challenges to these suits. There’s no guarantee we’ll ever see a dime from this litigation.

Still, it’s worth a try, and the committee has requested a copy of the law firm’s agreement to review before its next meeting. If that document delivers on the firm’s promise of a suit at no cost to the county, then the full Board of Supervisors should approve it and let the struggle begin. There’s no point in sitting out this opportunity.

If the agreement has problem, the supervisors should know there are other law firms interested in pursuing opioid reimbursement cases.

One last thought: the resolution approving the suit must also have a clause saying that if the county does receive money from a judgment or settlement, all the money will be used to address opioid addiction. Every penny.

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