DOBSON — The Surry County Board of Commissioners voted Monday night to join a class-action lawsuit against drug companies as part of an effort to combat the growing opioid crisis.
At the end of Monday’s regular meeting, the board held a closed session to discuss a legal matter. Afterward, county attorney Ed Woltz released a resolution that four of the five board members had voted in favor of joining a public-nuisance suit against pharmaceutical drug manufacturers and wholesale drug distributors. Commissioner Buck Golding was the lone dissenter.
On Tuesday, the county board released a statement that it was “taking a much-needed step to hold accountable the companies responsible for dumping millions of dollars’ worth of prescription opiates into its community.”
Commissioner Golding said the county was approached by a group of law firms that are adding counties to the lawsuit from across the whole country, not just North Carolina.
According to Woltz, Surry County has filed suit against five of the largest manufacturers of prescription opioids and their related companies and against the country’s three largest wholesale drug distributors.
“The manufacturing companies 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,” the board said in a statement.
“Because prescription opioids are a highly addictive substance, in 1970 Congress designed a system to control the volume of opioid pills being distributed in this country. It let only a select few wholesalers gain the right to receive narcotics from manufacturers and deliver them to legal users such as pharmacies, hospitals and clinics.”
In exchange, those companies agreed to do an important job: halt suspicious orders and control against the diversion of these dangerous drugs for illegal uses, noted Chairman Eddie Harris.
“This is a reflection of these manufacturers and distributors not reporting anomalies in distributing these drugs,” Harris said. “Nobody is minding the story. … These companies are obligated to monitor these pills.” In recent years they failed to do that, and today the Surry County community is paying the price.
According to a federal study the law firms quoted to the county, roughly 1 in 7 people who received a refill or had a second opioid prescription authorized were still on opioids one year later.
According to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, from 1999 to 2016 more than 12,000 North Carolinians died from opioid-related overdoses. Surry County has been one of the hardest hit areas in the state. Based on the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of opioid prescriptions dispensed in Surry County in 2016 exceeded the total county population, amounting to nearly two prescriptions for every man, woman and child.
According to one of the stats Harris saw from the law firms was that Surry’s rate of prescriptions per person is about two and half times the national average.
“Opioid deaths have increased significantly,” said Harris. “We are at an all-time high on drug overdose deaths.”
According to Emergency Services Director John Shelton, the county has had 50 overdose deaths so far this year. There also have been 25 suicides, and opioids were involved in some of those cases, too, he noted.
The residents of Surry County continue to bear the burden of the cost of the epidemic, said Harris. Some of it is obvious such as police officers making drug arrest and hospitals treating overdose patients who may not have insurance to pay their bills.
But there are so many ancillary effects of this crisis, Harris said, which makes it hard to monetize. The county had to double its funding for medical examiner fees this year because of all the wrongful deaths. Ambulance drivers responding to drug overdoses aren’t available to run other emergency calls.
If a parent is hooked on drugs, the children may have to be taken away for their own protection, Harris added. In the case of an overdose death, a more permanent home could be needed.
“The judicial system has been overwhelmed,” he said. “There are costs to the criminal justice system that are extraordinary. … There is a huge impact on the families that make this county their home.”
The lawsuit looks to recoup those costs while also looking for funding to be proactive such as public education and treatment to reduce prescription drug use, the chairman said. Of course, it is impossible to put a monetary amount on the impact on the drugs users and their loved ones.
Golding was the only board member to vote against the lawsuit.
“They claim we can be an individual entity,” said Golding, but the firms are gathering up counties across the entire nation.
By the time the lawyers are finished recruiting, there will be a long line of people with their hands out, he believes, which will cut into how much any one group gets.
Like the big tobacco settlement of 1998, a huge chunk of the money would go to the law firms and not the governments. Golding said the lawyers were going after the deep pockets because they are demanding 30 percent of the winnings or settlement amount.
Golding said he isn’t totally against the notion of getting money from the drug companies, but he just doesn’t see it working out in the end.
The drug manufacturers will have a huge team of lawyers, too, he said, and the case will take years. Then appeals likely would push that time out even longer.
Even if somehow the county got lucky and got a nice chunk from the suit, Golding said he foresees any sum coming with stipulations on how the county would be able to use that money rather than just putting it in the general fund or fund balance.
“There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and there’s no free money,” he said.
The law firms working together who have been hired by the county include: Baron & Budd; Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty & Proctor; Greene Ketchum Bailey Farrell & Tweel; Hill, Peterson, Carper, Bee & Deitzler; McHugh Fuller Law Group; Powell & Majestro; and Garry Whittaker, Local Counsel.
Reach Jeff at 415-4692.