Thurston County commissioners made a good call recently to join other Washington counties and cities in a federal lawsuit against the makers of opioids.
There is evidence some of the largest pharmaceutical firms downplayed the addiction risks that go hand in hand with use of certain pain killers.
The lawsuit, like the national tobacco lawsuits that earned hundreds of billions of dollars for states in the 1990s, seeks to reimburse local governments for the costs incurred as a result of the opioid addiction “epidemic,” as Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim puts it.
How much damage Thurston County has actually suffered remains to be calculated, according to Scott Cushing, a senior deputy in the county prosecutor’s civil department.
The federal complaint was filed on behalf of the county by a Seattle law firm. The county alleges that at least 106 Thurston County residents died of opioid-related overdoses during 2012-16. This led county public health director Schelli Slaughter to call opioid addiction a public health emergency.
The lawsuit’s cost and risk for county taxpayers appears small. Thurston County entered into a contingency fee agreement with Keller Rohrback L.L.P. of Seattle that will pay the law firm roughly $1 of every $5 recovered in the suit, depending on the amount won, if any.
Keller Rohrback has filed the lawsuit under the state consumer protection law and federal racketeering statutes on behalf of other local governments including King, Pierce and Skagit counties and the cities of Tacoma, Mount Vernon, Burlington and Sedro-Woolley. The Washington attorney general also is pursuing a case.
Thurston County’s lawsuit was transferred this week to the growing portfolio of opioids cases handled by a federal judge in northern Ohio. That Ohio court is handling a consolidation of potentially hundreds of cases nationwide. Also transferred was a claim by the Nisqually Tribe near Yelm.
The targeted parties include OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, Percocet maker Endo Pharmaceuticals, and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, the Johnson & Johnson subsidiary that makes patches that release fentanyl, and other manufacturers. The top distributors of opioids including Ohio-based Cardinal Health also are named as defendants, based on an allegation that dangerous drugs were marketed aggressively without adequate warnings of risks.
The moves to counter opioids in court may be new but the ravages of opioid addiction are not. Some experts trace the current addiction crisis to the development of new, highly addictive painkillers that became available in the 1990s.
But while the ground is moving on the national opioids crisis, it would be a shame if the only real progress occurred locally or in courts.
President Trump last month encouraged a federal lawsuit along similar lines. However, Trump and GOP allies have sought to undercut the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid, which allowed some states like Ohio and its Republican governor, John Kasich, to expand treatment to more destitute addicts.
Despite heavy lobbying outlays by the drug industry, prescribing practices have been reined in by states like Washington. These prescribing protocols may reduce the number of new addicts.
But as prescribed pain drugs have become unavailable or unaffordable for users, addicts are turning to cheaper heroin, a cousin drug made from opium, and dealers are sometimes cutting heroin with the deadly fentanyl. This is driving some of the death toll.
Slaughter says half of those using clean-needle programs in Thurston County are using heroin.
The answer is not to withhold clean needles or leave addicts for dead in city alleys or door stoops, but to ensure there are pathways for drug-dependent residents to find sobriety.
The lawsuit does not provide that pathway, but it is a welcome piece in the larger fight to reclaim our loved ones, neighbors and even strangers on the street who cannot kick these most potent of addictions.