2017-12-13 / Front Page

Commissioners hear more about county lawsuits against drug companies

by Kate Shunney

Morgan County officials will consider whether to join a growing list of counties in West Virginia and nationwide who are suing drug manufacturers and suppliers for their role in the opiod epidemic.

The lead attorney representing Jefferson and Berkeley counties in such a lawsuit briefed the Morgan County Commission about the suit last Wednesday, December 6. County officials have yet to decide whether they will join in the legal action.

Stephen Skinner of Skinner Law Firm of Charles Town appeared before the commissioners for a lengthy discussion about the issue.

Commission President Joel Tuttle introduced the agenda item by saying counties in West Virginia “feel they have been impacted negatively by the opioid crisis.”

“We’ve been asked by the people, constituents and our sheriff why we’re not participating” in the suit, said Tuttle.

Tuttle said he would not typically make a move to join the suits, which spell out the financial harm suffered by counties in having to address the addiction problem.

“It’s not my cup of tea,” he said, adding that he believed most people he knows would not join the suit.

Tuttle said it’s up for discussion whether Morgan County has been negatively impacted by widespread addiction to opioid drugs, including heroin.

Skinner gave a brief background on the lawsuit, saying West Virginia’s former Attorney General sued drug distributors in 2010 for their part in flooding state pharmacies with painkillers.

That case, which is still underway, led to the release of data about how many pills have poured into West Virginia during the height of the state’s overdose deaths, which top the nation.

An investigation by the Charleston Gazette Mail into the quantity of pill shipments to small towns in southern West Virginia “opened the lid on the issue,” Skinner said.

“I don’t think there’s anyone in this room who hasn’t been affected by the opioid crisis. About 80% of heroin users started on pills,” said Skinner.

He said Morgan County’s overdose rate is higher, per capita, than Jefferson County’s, and the local drug poisoning rate is double the national average.

“Something’s going on here,” said Skinner.

He said 190 legal actions across the U.S. have been consolidated into one suit, but the cases are not a class action suit. Skinner said there is one new suit filed every other day.

Of the 3,000 counties across the U.S., roughly half have “serious costs because of the epidemic,” Skinner told the commissioners.

He said these cases are about governments recovering their costs for additional law enforcement and jail costs, about educating the public and coming up with treatment for citizens who are fighting addiction in communities.

Skinner said his firm works under a contingent fee agreement. “We only get paid if we recover money from the lawsuit. If we don’t, we eat the expenses,” he said.

Tuttle asked if there is a statute of limitations or time limit for Morgan County to file a suit against the drug manufacturers and distributors.

“We know there’s a problem now. We know there are those who created the problem. I don’t recommend waiting too long,” said Skinner.

Commissioner Bob Ford asked if the county would need to compile local data for a lawsuit.

“We’d need your help,” said Skinner. He said researchers may need to go over local data in a new way, such as looking over death certificates to determine if a cause of death is tied to a drug overdose.

County administrator Larry Thomas put together slides of information about overdoses and local jail bills.

According to information provided by Morgan County EMS, ambulance crews administered the drug Naloxone, also known as Narcan, to reverse overdoses a total of 71 times in 2016. In 2014, they administered the drug 27 times.

“Everything we do has a nexus to the opioid epidemic,” said Sheriff K.C. Bohrer.

The Sheriff’s Department has responded to over 70 overdose calls, most to assist EMS in handling patients who become combative after receiving an overdose reversal drug.

The department has charged 18 cases of drug delivery and 23 cases of possession of heroin this year, said Bohrer. Those numbers don’t include cases handled by the Town of Bath, Town of Paw Paw or West Virginia State Police, he said. He estimated that Morgan County has one drug overdose death per month.

Morgan County’s jail bill has also risen steadily over the last five years.

At least a third of West Virginia counties have joined or filed suit against the drug companies.

Commissioner Ford asked if it was right to “penalize pharmaceutical companies” by filing suit against them.

Skinner said the companies created the addiction epidemic by marketing pain pills as non-addictive and shipping huge quantities of pills into areas with small populations – one method of fueling the street market for pills.

“Our clients – the majority will tell you they got heroin through pills,” said Sheriff Bohrer.

Someone addicted to pain pills, even from a legitimate medical need, will seek out heroin when their doctor or pharmacist cuts off access to those pills, said Thomas.

Bohrer said two dealers recently charged in large-scale operations in Morgan County reported doing tens of thousands of dollars worth of heroin sales each week.

The mixture of heroin can contain fentanyl, a powerful sedative, which Bohrer said is “deadly as hell.”

Skinner said the marketing and sales methods of drug makers and distributors are to blame.

“The reason we sue them is they’re responsible. They wanted customers for life,” he said.

Tuttle said if Morgan County does file suit against the drug companies, Commissioner Ken Reed would recuse himself. Reed is a pharmacist and owns several pharmacies in the region.

Reed said he has a different view of the issue.

“This is an extremely complicated issue. The lawsuit tries to boil it down to one point in distribution,” he said. Reed argued that the federal Drug Enforcement Agency is responsible for approving the total number of pain pill doses marketed each year. He said they should be held accountable for those approvals.

Reed said he wouldn’t have a problem suing manufacturers for falsely claiming their pills weren’t addictive. He said suing distributors could cut down supply of pain medication for legitimate customers, which is already a problem.

“It puts me in the awkward position of determining who is worthy of pain medication,” said Reed.

Skinner agreed that the DEA and even the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy have responsibility for failures to monitor drug shipments.

He said the county could decide it only wants to sue drug makers, not distributors.

“There is a chance to impact policy,” he said.

Skinner said one goal is to get to a “soft landing” in the addiction epidemic.

“We need to get to an end point somehow,” he said.

Morgan County officials said they would discuss a proposal from Skinner’s law firm and make a decision about legal action at a later meeting.

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