Wednesday, November 14, 2018

County joins class-action lawsuit against opioid drug manufacturers

With county agencies throughout the state reeling from both social and economic costs associated with the nation's opioid crisis, the Monroe County Board voted last week to join a class-action lawsuit against the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the drugs.

Supervisor Mary Von Ruden, who introduced the measure last Tuesday, was adamant the county join the lawsuit. Her concern, she said, is the toll it takes on departmental budgets, especially human services, which has found itself on the front line of the opioid epidemic.

"We have to do something," she said. "We can't just sit on our hands and think its going to go away because its not."

According to the national Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the societal cost of the opioid epidemic amounts to $75 billion annually.

The lawsuit aims to recoup at least a portion of the county's expenses, which, besides human services, are borne by the courts, law enforcement, the health department and other agencies.

And while it could take years before a settlement is reached, the county doesn't pay a dime in direct costs to fund the law firms bringing the case forward, but will receive a payment if the lawsuit is successful.

According to Monroe County Corporation Counsel Andy Kaftan, the county will likely incur some indirect expenses in the time it takes county employees to gather data for the law firms and redact information on confidential files.

He said the agreement with the law firms, gives the attorneys 25% of a settlement plus expenses. The rest would go to the counties, but how that is portioned out is unknown.

That was a point of contention for Supervisor Doug Path, who wasn't necessarily against joining the class-action suit but felt more facts were needed to make an informed decision.

"I think it's too early to jump in and vote on something we are very uniformed about," he said.

Supervisor Pete Peterson disagreed, saying the lawsuit is going forward whether Monroe County participated or not. "We're gong to get our share," he said.

Almost two-thirds of Wisconsin's 72 counties have joined the lawsuit so far.

Kaftan said there are a lot of questions that won't be answered until the lawsuit is underway, the biggest being whether the law firm can even prove the pharmaceutical companies knew of the downside and tremendous addictive power opioids.

While that may be difficult to prove, Kayleigh Day, a health educator with the Monroe County health department presented statistics that show the societal impact of  prescription opioids.

She said nationally, between 2000 and 2015, a half million people have died from overdoses largely tied to prescription drugs.

Also during that time, the amount of prescription opioids sold to pharmacies, hospitals and doctors' offices nearly quadrupled despite the fact there had not been any overall change in the amount of pain Americans reported.

In that same period, sales of Vicodin, an opioid painkiller, increased 600%, making it the most widely prescribed medication in the U.S.

"The high supply of these drugs has made them more affordable and, therefore, we have seen more use and abuse of them," said Day.

Prescription opioid use, she said, is a common gateway to heroin use with about 75% of heroin addicts first using prescription opioids. That has led to a dramatic increase in heroin-related deaths and hospital encounters among users.

In Wisconsin, the opioid epidemic has been declared a public health crisis  and in 2016, more people died from opioid overdoses than car crashes.

In Monroe County over the last decade 31 people have died from opioid overdoses with 80% of those deaths due to a prescription drug. The county has also seen opioid-related hospital visits double over that time.

The county's health department has seen an increase in the number of babies born addicted to drugs, as well as a spike in hepatitis-C cases due to intravenous drug use, such as heroin.

Kaftan said the opioid lawsuit is being compared to the class-action lawsuit against the tobacco companies. In that case, the state received the settlement money with none distributed to the counties.

Kaftan said the state could intervene in this lawsuit, too, claiming the opioid crisis is a statewide issue and excluding the counties.

"The thought is if counties are proactive and get involved in the lawsuit then the state isn't likely to intercede and take away the possibility of recovery because the counties are bearing the cost of the crisis," he said.

Supervisor Paul Steele made a failed motion to postpone a vote on the measure until the board could hear from an attorney from the Wisconsin Counties Association.

Saying there was nothing to gain by postponing a decision, Peterson called for the vote on joining the lawsuit, which passed 11-4.   


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