County joining opioid lawsuit

Island County is prepared to join multi-district litigation against prescription opioid manufacturers.

The vote, which will not be unanimous, is scheduled for Tuesday during the Board of Island County Commissioners regular meeting.

The board decided during a work session Wednesday to move forward a resolution proposed by Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks.

Commissioner Rick Hannold said during the meeting he was not in favor of joining the suit.

“My take on the whole thing is, until we start doing law enforcement and ridding the streets of the supply, then nothing’s going to fix anything,” Hannold said.

The idea to join the lawsuit was discussed during a meeting held in early April with department heads and staff from Public Health, Human Services, the Island County Sheriff’s Office and attorneys from the Seattle-based law firm Keller Rohrback.

Banks approached the firm after learning of its representation other local cities and counties in the national effort.

The agreement that is expected to be signed by the commissioners states that attorney fees will paid only if a settlement is reached and funds are recovered.

Sheriff Mark Brown said during Monday’s meeting that he is in favor of the county’s decision. He likened it to the large tobacco lawsuits of the 1990s in which money was distributed to communities to help address the problem.

Brown said putting funds recovered toward possible solutions to the crisis would be “money well spent.”

“We certainly have issues in front of us,” he said.

In 2017, nine Island County residents died as a result of an opioid overdose and six of those were from prescription opioids, according the resolution.

The number of residents receiving behavioral health services with an opioid diagnosis has increased steadily and will have doubled between 2016 and the end of 2018, the resolution states.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said she sees the county being part of the lawsuit as a way to ensure it receives potential recovery funds.

“Our choice, it seems to me, is either we let the money go to the state on our behalf and hope that some of it comes to us,” she said.

“Or we enter the lawsuit as a party of record and be part of the settlement.”

The lawsuit will be against manufacturers and “other responsible parties” for misleading marketing and distribution of the drugs.

Commissioner Jill Johnson previously expressed skepticism about the lawsuit tactic, but said Wednesday she changed her mind after watching videos produced by some of the involved manufacturers.

In particular, she referred to “direct statements” made in the videos that the drugs aren’t addictive.

“My turning point was just because I don’t like the rules of the game, doesn’t mean you don’t play it,” she said.

Her support was contingent on the money that is potentially recovered from a settlement being limited to treatment options and not programs.

Johnson said she would prefer that the funds go toward infrastructure of treatment facilities, but she said she’s willing to discuss the use of recovery funds as the process moves forward.

After Johnson made her comments, Banks added language in the resolution that the money could not supplant general operating funds of any department.

The resolution states the funds will be used to “directly improve the quality and quantity of services necessitated by opioid addiction,” which includes “law enforcement, corrections, prosecution, public defense, behavioral health, housing, and public health and safety.”

Fifteen counties joined the lawsuit and more are considering it, according to Banks. These include nearby San Juan, Skagit and Snohomish counties.

Several states and cities are also part of the lawsuit.

“I think the litigation is a low-risk and possibly some-reward maybe even high-reward enterprise for the county to help ameliorate the costs of the opioid epidemic in Island County,” Banks said.

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