County commissioners

McLennan County commissioners Ben Perry (from left) and Will Jones, and County Judge Scott Felton meet.

Staff photo — Cassie L. Smith, file

McLennan County’s rate of prescription opioid distribution is higher than state and national averages, a fact that helped prompt county commissioners to file a lawsuit Tuesday against the country’s largest opioid manufacturers and wholesale distributors.

County commissioners retained the law firms of Haley & Olson P.C., and Harrison Davis Steakley Morrison Jones P.C. in what commissioners say is a first step toward holding companies responsible for flooding the community with prescription opioids and fueling an opioid-abuse epidemic by prioritizing profits over people.

For every 100 people in McLennan County, 77 opioid prescriptions were dispensed in 2015, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state average for the class of painkillers was 59.8 prescriptions per 100 people, and the national average was 70.6 prescriptions per 100 people, Haley & Olson attorney Craig D. Cherry said.

The two firms will receive a third of any settlement or judgment recovered against the pharmaceutical companies, County Administrator Dustin Chapman said. If the county does not get a favorable result, the firms will not be paid, he said.

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said everyone has friends or family who have been impacted by the epidemic.

“The commissioners want to be leaders in this fight against an epidemic that has affected McLennan County citizens of all races and socio-economic groups,” Felton said. “Simply put, opioid addiction and the corresponding effects of opioid addiction do not discriminate. We want to help put a stop to this and recoup taxpayer dollars that have been expended in numerous ways to combat this epidemic.”

The lawsuit could take years to resolve, Cherry said.

“The opioid epidemic has created a tremendous burden for counties across the country,” he said. “McLennan County is no exception to that rule.”

Felton said he believes the two law firms are the right ones for the job.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday afternoon in the U.S. District Court Western District, Waco division. Defendants listed include: Purdue Pharma LP, Purdue Pharma Inc., The Purdue Frederick Company, Cephalon Inc., Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., Teva Pharmaceuticals USA Inc., Johnson & Johnson, Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc. n/k/a Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., Janssen Pharmaceutica Inc. n/k/a Janssen, Endo Health Solutions Inc., Endo Pharmaceuticals Inc., Abbott Laboratories, Knoll Pharmaceutical Company, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Abbott Laboratories, Watson Laboratories Inc., Actavis LLC, Actavis Pharma Inc. f/k/a Watson Pharma Inc., Insys Therapeutics Inc., Pfizer Inc., McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health Inc. and AmerisourceBergen Corp.

There have been a substantial number of overdose deaths as a result, in whole or part, of opioid ingestion, and opioid addiction is one of the primary reasons county residents seek substance abuse treatment, according to the lawsuit.

Manufacturing companies have pushed highly addictive, dangerous opioids falsely representing to doctors that patients would only rarely succumb to drug addiction, while the distributors breached their legal duties to monitor, detect, investigate, refuse and report suspicious orders of prescription opioids, commissioners said in a press release. The economic burden caused by opioid abuse in the United States is about $78.5 billion, including from lost productivity, an increased need for social services, increased health insurance costs, increased criminal justice presence, strain on judicial resources, and substance abuse treatment and rehabilitation, according to the release. The two law firms are evaluating what type of financial impact the epidemic has had on McLennan County, but they believe the cost has been in the millions of dollars, Cherry said.

Both firms have been contacted by a number of other counties throughout the state, he said.

“We are evaluating those cases at this time,” Cherry said. “My belief is that we will be asked to represent additional counties going forward.”

Other counties’ cases would be separate from McLennan County’s, but there is a chance they could be consolidated as they move forward, he said.

‘Cried with my clients’

The CDC has provided fairly concrete and scientific information regarding the opioid problem in McLennan County, said Herb Bristow, another Haley & Olson attorney.

County leaders asked the firm to look into whether there was an issue in McLennan County, Bristow said.

Matt Morrison, a Harrison Davis Steakley Morrison Jones attorney, said his litigation experience has brought him face to face with victims of the opioid crisis.

“I have cried with my clients. I have represented families of people who have died from the epidemic,” Morrison said. “It is overwhelming and it is across the country.”

Health care providers in the United States wrote more than 289 million prescriptions for opioids in 2016, enough for every adult in the nation to have more than one bottle of pills, according to the lawsuit.

Opioids used to treat moderate to severe pain include oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine and methadone, according to the CDC. Some opioid brand names include OxyContin, Vicodin, Opana, Percocet, Percodan, Roxicodone and Avinza.

Fentanyl is an opioid typically approved to treat advanced cancer pain. Heroin is an illegal opioid that has seen increased use in the U.S. among many demographics, according to the CDC.

The prescription opioid-abuse epidemic did not occur by chance, the lawsuit states.

“Defendants falsely and misleadingly downplayed the serious risk of addiction … exaggerated the effectiveness of screening tools in preventing addiction, claimed opioid dependence and withdrawal are easily managed, … promoted highly addictive opioids through souvenirs and toys,” according to the lawsuit.

Misrepresentations by the defendants led doctors and patients to discount risks of the drugs, the suit states.

“Some of the repercussions for residents of McLennan County include job loss, loss of custody of children, physical and mental health problems, homelessness and incarceration, which results in instability in communities often already in economic crisis and contributes to increased demand on community services such as hospitals, courts, child services, treatment centers and law enforcement.”

Morrison said it would be the law firms’ privilege to bring the fight against opioid abuse to McLennan County. “The county has been damaged, and we need to help make that right,” he said.

More than six out of 10 drug overdose deaths in the nation involve an opioid, according to the CDC. The amount of prescription opioids sold to pharmacies, hospitals and doctors’ offices nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2010, according to the CDC. Opioid deaths have quadrupled since 1999. On average, 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose, according to the CDC.

McLennan County commissioners voted 4-0 to file the suit. Precinct 2 Commissioner Lester Gibson was not in attendance.

Other Texas counties have recently engaged in litigation against pharmaceutical companies concerning the opioid epidemic.

Lawyers with the Dallas-based firm Simon Greenstone Panatier Bartlett P.C. filed a similar suit on behalf of Upshur County on Sept. 29, making it the first lawsuit by a Texas governmental body against pharmaceutical companies for their role in the opioid epidemic, which was declared a national emergency by President Donald Trump last week. Bowie and Hopkins counties have since joined the firm’s suit.

“There is no denying that we have an opioid crisis in America and that the human misery and financial damage it causes is enormous,” said Jeffrey Simon, a Simon Greenstone Panatier Bartlett attorney, in a statement. “Although accidental overdoses have become the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50, the pharmaceutical industry has not been fully held accountable for its role in creating this epidemic.”

Cassie L. Smith has covered county government for the Tribune-Herald since June 2014. She previously worked as a reporter for the Beaumont Enterprise and The Eagle in Bryan-College Station. Smith graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington.

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