OGDEN — Weber County has joined a growing number of communities around the country suing opioid makers and distributors over what critics say are the ill effects of prescription painkiller abuse.
“We’re not looking at getting opioids off the market. We feel that there’s a strong use and need for opioids,” Weber County Commissioner James Ebert said Thursday in announcing the filing of the lawsuit. “It’s the way that they were marketed and the way that they were being prescribed, and that needs to change.”
The county’s lawsuit, paralleling similar suits filed by Tooele, Summit and Salt Lake counties, charges that overuse and abuse of opioids like OxyContin, narcotics used as painkillers, has taken a heavy toll on Weber County and the residents here. Manufacturers and distributors are culpable, it says, because they knew of the addictive powers of opioids but downplayed the dangers and, instead, bolstered marketing efforts to maximize profits from sales of the drugs.
“This case is about one thing: corporate greed. (Drug makers and distributors) put their desire for profits above the health, well-being and safety of Weber County residents,” reads the lawsuit filed in 2nd District Court in Ogden, echoing language in other lawsuits.
The 240-page lawsuit targets 24 defendants, including opioid makers Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals and Cephalon and distributors of the drugs. It seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages from the defendants and an order that they “abate the public nuisance they created.”
Reps from Stamford, Connecticut-based Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, didn’t immediately return queries seeking comment Thursday. But an open statement on the firm’s website referenced the opioid epidemic and the company’s efforts to address it.
“As we continue to fight the prescription opioid and illicit substance abuse crisis, we are applying our resources and our best scientific minds to discover and develop new, non-opioid pain medicines for patients,” it reads. “No one solution will end the crisis, but multiple, overlapping efforts will. We want everyone engaged to know you have a partner in Purdue Pharma. This is our fight, too.”
MOST DEATHS PER CAPITA IN OGDEN
Downtown Ogden had the highest per-capita rate of opioid deaths in Utah in 2014 and 2015 with 55.33 per 100,000 residents, according to data from the Utah Epidemiological Outcomes Workgroup. That amounts to 41 deaths, highest in the two-year period of any of the “small areas” in Utah, as defined by state officials.
The lawsuit states that Weber County’s overall opioid overdose death rate, 25.2 per 100,000 residents, exceeded the statewide figure, 23.4 per 100,000. With Utah registering the seventh-highest rate of drug-poisoning deaths in the nation as of 2015, Ebert said, “I would say we have a pretty good crisis in Weber County that we need to address.”
Weber County Attorney Christopher Allred sees the toll of opioid abuse in the criminal cases that wind through his office. There are the criminal defendants whose crimes are linked to abuse of opioids and heroin, which some users turn to when they can’t get opioids, as well as their victims.
Ebert noted the considerable rehabilitation costs for opioid abusers, where some of the settlement funds, if the county’s suit is successful, would be funneled.
“You’re looking at a fairly large price tag. Most families can’t afford that, most insurance companies don’t cover that. So that’s where we’d be looking for most of these dollars to go to help with long-term treatment,” he said. The drug, he continued, has an impact that transcends socio-economics, meaning “the opioid epidemic can affect anyone at any time in their life.”
Allred said the precise impact to Weber County of opioid abuse, monetarily and otherwise, has yet to be determined.
The lawsuit, though, singles out the costs to the county in covering opioid prescriptions for county employees through county-provided health care coverage. Such prescriptions stemmed from the defendants’ “fraudulent marketing and therefore all of them constitute false claims,” it reads.
More generally, the suit says the losses to Weber County stemming from opioid abuse extend to “health care costs, criminal justice and victimization costs, social costs and lost productivity costs.”
Allred said the case could take up to two years before going to trial. In light of the many opioid lawsuits filed in courts around the country, an alternative outcome, he said, could be a settlement.
Napoli Shkolnik of New York City and two Salt Lake City firms, Magleby Cataxinos Greenwood and Dewsnup King Olsen & Worel, are representing Weber County in the case. The county won’t pay any upfront costs to the law firms, rather, they would get a 20-percent cut of any of the proceeds recovered in litigation.