by CHRIS ROGERS
Trempeauleau County plans to sue the manufacturers of OxyContin, Percocet, Opana, and other prescription opioid painkillers for allegedly contributing to opioid addictions, overdoses, and the problems caused by addiction.
The pharmaceutical companies that make these drugs are facing a slew of lawsuits all over the country. During this month alone, there were over 50 lawsuits filed in federal court against Purdue Pharma, for instance, mostly by cities, counties, and states. Earlier this month, the Trempealeau County Board decided to join at least 28 other Wisconsin counties in suing the opioid manufacturers. Neighboring Jackson County, Wis., sued Johnson & Johnson, Endo Health, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Purdue Pharma, and other companies this month, claiming that they contributed to opioid addiction by allegedly convincing doctors that the drugs were non-addictive and safe for long-term use, while allegedly knowing that was not the case. For their part, several of the companies said that properly used opioids can be a safe, effective option for pain management and that they are committed to combating abuse.
When there are opioid overdoses in Trempealeau County, some of the first responders who answer the 9-1-1 calls are County Board member Sally Miller’s family members. “They are seeing it firsthand,” she stated in an interview. “When someone gets injured, and they’re prescribed a legitimate painkiller in a legitimate situation that’s very addicting, it can affect anyone … This is an equal-opportunity destroyer, and I’ve seen it,” Miller said.
While methamphetamine use has generally gotten more attention, Miller said that opioid abuse is also prevalent in Trempealeau County and causing serious harm to people, families, and the community.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, nine people died from opioid-related drug overdoses in Trempealeau County between 2006 and 2015, placing it in the middle of the pack for deaths-per-capita among Wisconsin counties. To put that in perspective, from 2010-2014 in Trempealeau County, more people died from opioid overdoses than drunk-driving accidents, according to DHS statistics. Eight of the nine deaths were caused by prescription opioids, not street drugs like heroin. Most of those deaths occurred in the past five years.
There were a lot more close calls than actual overdose deaths. Seventy Trempealeau County residents were treated for acute opioid poisoning at hospitals or emergency rooms from 2006-2014. Most of those cases were caused by prescription opioids, not heroin, according to the report.
Sadly, there have also been some cases of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) among babies born to Trempealeau County residents. NAS is a condition caused by opioid use during pregnancy and it is associated with low birth weight, feeding difficulties, and respiratory problems, according to the DHS. Among Trempealeau County babies, 14 cases of NAS were reported between 2006 and 2014, with six cases in 2013.
Asked if nine overdose deaths in nine years was enough to give Trempealeau County a strong case, attorney for the county and Crueger Dickinson Partner Krista Baisch wrote that “death is only one of the many tragic consequence of this the opioid epidemic,” and that the county had suffered many other costs because of addiction. “Counties, including Trempealeau County, are incurring costs for increased law enforcement and public safety employees dealing with opioid-related incidents; costs for providing treatment, counseling, and rehabilitation services; costs for providing welfare or protective services for children whose parents suffer from opioid-related disability or incapacitation; costs for providing treatment of infants born with opioid-related medical conditions; costs for providing medical care, additional therapeutic, and prescription drug purchases, and other treatments for patients suffering from opioid-related addiction or disease …” she stated.
Under an agreement approved by the County Board in a 15-1 vote at its November 11 meeting, Baisch’s office and a national law firm will represent Trempealeau County for free. The lawyers only get paid if there is a financial settlement, though county staff will need to spend time collecting information for the case.
Asked why she voted to sue, Miller said, “I certainly see the impact these issues are causing day-to-day. I felt it was important that we start being part of the solution instead of wringing our hands and saying, ‘What do we do? This is a terrible thing.’ If someone is bringing forward an option and we can be part of that solution, we need to lead.”
Miller pointed to the extra sheriff’s office investigator and child protection worker the county has hired just to deal with drug-related child endangerment cases, to the cost of foster care and other out-of-home placements for those children, and to the extra costs the county bears to send arrestees to detox. Some of those cases involve methamphetamine, and some involve opioids, she said.
“[I wanted] to make sure that if there’s any chance to reimburse us for what we’re doing, that we have a chance of getting a piece of that, but the bigger reason was accountability,” Miller stated. “They need to be held accountable, and they need to pay,” she added.
Baisch’s firm has not yet filed a lawsuit on behalf of Trempealeau County, but it will, she said.
“We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense,” a spokesperson for Purdue Pharma wrote in response to questions about the lawsuits, adding, “As a company grounded in science, we must balance patient access to [Food and Drug Administration]-approved medicines, while working collaboratively to solve this public health challenge.” The company added that it is promoting doctor education on safe prescribing guidelines and ensuring law enforcement access to naloxone, an antidote to opioid poisoning.
“Responsibly used opioid-based pain medicines give doctors and patients important choices to help manage the debilitating effects of chronic pain. At the same time, we recognize opioid abuse and addiction is a serious public health issue that must be addressed,” wrote Janssen Pharmaceuticals spokesperson William Foster. “We believe the allegations in lawsuits against our company are both legally and factually unfounded. Janssen has acted in the best interests of patients and physicians with regard to its opioid pain medicines, which are FDA-approved and carry FDA-mandated warnings about possible risks on every product label.” He added that Janssen’s drugs have had some of the lowest rates of abuse.
“At Endo, our top priorities include patient safety and ensuring that patients with chronic pain have access to safe and effective therapeutic options,” wrote Endo Senior Director of Corporate Affairs Heather Zoumas Lubeski. “We share in the FDA’s goal of appropriately supporting the needs of patients with chronic pain while preventing misuse and diversion of opioid products.”
So far, Buffalo County has not joined its neighbors in suing. In Minnesota, the Olmsted County Board recently agreed to join litigation against opioid manufacturers; the Winona County Board has not discussed it.