Posted May 10th, 2019.
The Madison County Board of Supervisors filed a $40 million lawsuit against Big Pharma, Thursday in the county’s circuit court.
By Chuck Jackson
Madison County may not be the opioid epicenter of Virginia but two overdose deaths in 2017 and the need by law enforcement and first responders to apply multiple uses of the drug Narcan in the years since – has opened enough eyes, including that of county government – that the Board of Supervisors filed a civil suit, Thursday in Madison County Circuit Court, against a sundry of opioid manufacturers, distributors and PBMs.
Three other Virginia localities including the Counties of Floyd and Louisa and the City of Covington also filed individual lawsuits in their respective circuit courts Thursday for Big Pharma’s role in creating the public health emergency caused by the overuse of prescription opioids.
Madison seeks $40,000,000 in damages. In comparison, Louisa asked for $50 million while Floyd asked for $30 million and Covington, $15 million.
“Opioids are a problem in the county that have affected a lot of families,” Supervisor Chair R. Clay Jackson said Friday evening when reached by telephone. “We’ve been in discussion about what to do for a few months now and decided this was the best course of action.”
Jackson said the case was the reason the county board of supervisors have had so many closed meetings lately.
In the suit, the plaintiffs claim Madison has seen big increases in the rate of EMS Narcan administrations, Hepatitis C outbreaks, Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) and overdose deaths. Most statistical data come from 2017, the latest year data collection has been reported by the state and federal governments.
Madison County has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic. According to the Virginia Department of Health, the Madison County Emergency Medical Services and the county’s rescue squad in 2017 administered 68.8 doses per 100,000 population, compared to the statewide rate of 53.9 doses per 100,000 population. In 2017, the reported rate of Hepatitis C among 18 to 30-year-olds in Madison County spiked from zero to 172.3 cases per 100,000 population. The rate of NAS in Madison County has peaked at a rate of 20-plus cases per 1,000 births, which is an infection rate that is also higher than the statewide rate. The most vivid statistic is the number of overdoses per 100,000 population has risen sharply to 18.6 deaths twice in the past five years, as tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The lawsuits, filed by the law firms of Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP (Nashville, Tenn.), The Cicala Law Firm, PLLC (Dripping Springs, Texas), Kaufman Canoles PC (Norfolk) and Madison County Attorney Sean D. Gregg allege the defendants including pharmaceutical titans Purdue Pharma, McKesson and CVS Caremark each has contributed to the opioid crisis in Virginia.
“Drug manufacturers make the opioids and mispresent the truth about their benefits and addiction risks,” a press release accompanying the lawsuits stated Friday. “Wholesale distributors ignore their responsibilities to report and stop suspicious orders and PBMs (Pharmacy Benefit Management) leverage their role as middlemen to increase the flow of opioids into the marketplace. The localities have all alleged violations of statutory and common law public nuisance, the Virginia Consumer Protection Act, fraud, common law conspiracy, negligence, and unjust enrichment.”
The defendants include manufacturers Purdue Pharma, Abbott Laboratories, Endo Pharmaceuticals, Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals; Teva Pharmaceuticals, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Cephalon, Inc., Barr Laboratories, Inc., Actavis Pharma, Watson Laboratories, Inc., Allergan PLC, and Insys Therapeutics; distributors AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp., Cardinal Health Inc., and McKesson Corp.; and PBMs Express Scripts, Inc., Caremark/CVS Health; United Health Group Inc., and OptumRx, Inc.
According to the press release, the rate of opioid overdose deaths has risen substantially in all four localities since the late 1990s, when the defendants began to push opioids for non-cancer pain. The rise in overdose deaths in the communities, along with increases in other opioid-related problems such as babies being born addicted to opioids and the spread of Hepatitis C, have coincided with startling increases in the number of opioids that the defendants have marketed, distributed, and reimbursed in the communities.
Predictably, the influx of opioids into communities in Virginia has also caused an unprecedented spike in crime, strains on law enforcement and courts, and an uptick in the need for foster and other child-placement services. All four localities that filed suit on Friday have been forced to spend substantial and precious public monies to address all the harms caused by the scourge of opioids that was intentionally unleashed in Virginia.
The lawsuits aim to recover such costs and, critically, to abate the flow of these dangerous drugs into our communities.
“We are pleased to represent these Virginia communities as they seek to hold the defendants accountable for their reprehensible actions and recover the funds the community has spent to address the impact of the opioid crisis,” Kevin H. Sharp of Sanford Heisler Sharp, said. “The citizens of these cities and counties deserve justice for the harms inflicted upon them by the defendants and our respective firms are proud to take on this fight on their behalf.” said Kevin H. Sharp of Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP.
Joanne Cicala of The Cicala Law Group said the opioid epidemic is a man-made crisis.
“It is not accidental,” Cicala said. “It is not a natural disaster. And worse – the companies that did this were not just seeking to build market share – they knew they were creating addicts. No local government wants to have to file a lawsuit. Local governments have enough to do already, providing services to the public on tight budgets. But this man-made crisis is costing these cities and counties dearly – and so they must respond. Those responsible for this epidemic – those who profited from it – must be held accountable for its costs.”
Asked what kind of cut the law firms would realize if the counties were successful with the suit, Jackson said he had not seen a written number.
“I’m not trying to give you a politician’s answer, but I really don’t know the exact figure,” Jackson said. “I do know it’s in the multi-million-dollar range.”
Gregg could not be reached for comment Friday night.