County weights joining opioid lawsuit

The Board of Island County Commissioners held a round-table discussion last week to consider whether to join multi-district litigation against prescription opioid manufacturers.

The discussion included department heads and staff from Public Health, Human Services, the sheriff’s and prosecutor’s offices and attorneys from the Seattle-based firm Keller Rohrback.

No decision was made at the meeting.

Prosecutor Greg Banks told the group he became interested in the issue after reading a series of articles about the marketing tactics of the prescription manufactures and how their role in changing how pain killers are prescribed and used.

Banks said he learned of Keller Rohrback’s representation of counties and cities in the multi-district litigation and wanted to look into the possibility of Island County getting involved.

“I know that Island County, like any other county, is suffering from the effects of opioid abuse,” he said.

Between 2012 and 2016, Island County had 38 opioid-related deaths, which is a rate of 10.9 per 100,000 population, according to Washington State Department of Health statistics. This rate is higher than the state average of 9.6 during that same time frame.

The national litigation is taking place in Ohio and more than 440 counties and cities have filed joined, said David Ko, from Keller Rohrback. Communities are suing the manufacturers Purdue Pharma LP, Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., Endo International Plc and more for their “improper marketing of and inappropriate distribution of various prescription opiate medications into cities, states and towns across the country,” according to the suit.

The number of communities joining the litigation has drawn comparisons to the tobacco litigation of the 1990s. Ko said that as in that settlement, it may prove beneficial to be a part of the suit if a settlement is reached.

“No one really knows how the settlement is going to be structured or shaped, but certainly if you have a seat at the table it’s more likely that you’ll have a say,” he said.

Island County Commissioner Rick Hannold questioned the effectiveness of suing the manufacturers instead of the Department of Justice for not putting anyone in jail thus far.

The multi-district litigation is a civil suit, not criminal, meaning it is seeking monetary damages and not jail time for the defendant.

“If they really want justice, if they really want to do the moral thing that’s right, they’re going to tell the Department of Justice to do their job and enforce the laws that are on the books,” Hannold said.

“In my eyes, it looks like the cities and counties and the states see a pot of money and everybody wants to grab their piece of the pie.”

Banks responded, saying a prosecutor can’t be forced to file charges against someone. Ko said the money being sought is for the costs to communities’ criminal justice system, health care systems and lost productivity from those suffering from addiction.

Commissioner Jill Johnson expressed her skepticism regarding the county’s legal standing in the matter. She said the opioid epidemic was brought forward to the Board of Health and was not designated as a crisis in Island County. She also likened it to other health issues that are driven by misleading advertising, such as obesity.

“We do not sue Coca-Cola,” Johnson said. “We don’t sue McDonald’s. We don’t sue other things where there’s a known cause and effect in their marketing … What about all the people who are getting sick from other lies that are being told?”

She said she wanted to ensure that the manufacturers could be directly identified as responsible for this issue. Additionally, she said she wasn’t sure the problem in Island County could specifically be linked to the prescription medication made by those manufacturers.

“I’m not sure that our population of people got their drugs that way,” she said.

Ko and another attorney from the firm, Dan Mensher, said they felt the county did have solid standing in the case. Ko pointed out that 80 percent of heroin users reported using prescription opioids prior to heroin, which is a statistic cited by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“Hamburgers, although delicious, are not Schedule-2 controlled substances,” Mensher replied to Johnson.

Many present verified the effects of the crisis have had an impact locally.

“We’re certainly feeling it,” said Island County Sheriff Mark Brown.

He said in response the department started carrying Narcan, which treats overdoses in emergencies, and he said the jail has begun administering medication-assisted treatment for addiction.

Deputy Rick Felici said he has seen a shift in his time with the department.

“Twenty-four years ago, when I started out as a patrol deputy, we’d never even heard of heroin,” he said. “It was unseen in Island County … Now you can’t swing a cat without hitting somebody that’s affected by heroin in this county.”

During 2017, there were three confirmed heroin-related deaths in Island County, according to state Department of Health data. There were six deaths related to prescription opioids. In 2016, there were 51 hospitalizations related to drugs, but the data on types of drugs was suppressed.

“The numbers are there,” Skye Newkirk, behavioral health coordinator, said at the meeting. He said between 2016 and 2017 the number of people going to the emergency room for overdoses doubled.

Banks said he’s seen the effect both in his work as county prosecutor and on people he knows personally.

“It’s really painful and it just didn’t need to happen,” he said. “It’s wrong. In my view, it was an intentional wrong. If the board’s inclined, I’m certainly in favor of the litigation.”

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