Idahoans are dying every year from opioid overdoses. As local leaders try to figure out how to protect this state from America’s latest addiction epidemic, several counties are taking their fight to the courts.
The counties are joining an ever-growing roster of government plaintiffs who accuse the makers of OxyContin, Lortab and other opioids of offenses such as fraud, false advertising and racketeering. Their lawsuits have been consolidated into a case now being overseen by a federal court in Ohio. Settlement talks have already begun.
Some Idaho county officials were approached by law firms heading up litigation against major drug companies like Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson.
Then, the counties got a nudge from Dan Chadwick, who recently retired as the longtime executive director and general counsel of the Idaho Association of Counties. When Chadwick recommends something, it’s “always a good opinion to trust,” said one county’s representative.
“I still bleed counties, so I am just getting folks to try to buy into this if they can,” said Chadwick, adding that he’s not working on behalf of IAC. “It’s just something I feel strongly about.”
TOBACCO IN THE ’90S, OPIOIDS NOW
In the last two months, counties from Owyhee to Blaine to Bonneville have decided to buy in.
Owyhee County’s commissioners voted Feb. 20 to sue. Commissioner Kelly Aberasturi said he wanted the county to join in a lawsuit “so that the drug companies just don’t go out there to make the almighty dollar; they think about what they’re doing.”
Just three days later, the commissioners in Bonneville County also voted to join in the opioid litigation. The county has spent “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in unexpected and unbudgeted time and resources in its programs and services related to the opioid epidemic,” their resolution says.
Boise County’s commissioners voted March 6 to sign on with two law firms to investigate and pursue legal claims against pharmaceutical manufacturers.
Camas and Gooding county commissioners decided about a month ago to join in the litigation, according to Matt Pember, prosecutor for both counties.
“We really wanted to stand behind [this]. We knew what a problem the opioid crisis was, and the commissioners felt like it was a good statement to try and stand up for the general public,” Pember said.
Each of the counties hope to get some compensation for the indirect costs of opioid use — like the tobacco settlements years ago that continue to generate funds for Idaho and other states.
Blaine County signed on March 20.
“I first really started paying attention to this early in 2017, and at first I thought this is not an issue for Blaine County because I had not been hearing we had a serious opioid issue that rose to crisis,” said County Commissioner Larry Schoen, who introduced the resolution to join the lawsuit. “At a certain point, I began asking various people like the sheriff, the coroner, folks from the hospital, the public health district … ‘Do we have a problem with opioids?’ ”
They told him opioids are being misused and distributed in Blaine County, but it’s not at a crisis level yet. Schoen notes that the county already has some substance-use problems — mostly with alcohol and marijuana — and is full of people who are aging and who enjoy outdoor sports that can result in injuries.
Canyon County is considering joining the lawsuit, according to the Idaho Press-Tribune. County spokesman Joe Decker said officials plan to meet with two law firms late this month to talk about options.
Oscar Klaas, an Ada County civil deputy prosecutor, said Ada County has been approached by law firms to join in the litigation and hasn’t yet made a decision. The litigation option will be raised next month at a public meeting with major stakeholders including the Ada County sheriff’s, prosecutor’s and public defender’s offices, and the coroner and paramedics, Klaas said.
HOW BAD IS IDAHO’S OPIOID PROBLEM?
The Idaho counties that sue will have to determine how much they have been damaged by the opioid epidemic. That won’t be easy. Data on opioid prescriptions, overdoses, deaths and treatments are tough to nail down. One of the nation’s top health care journalists tried to master the issue and found that much of the information is “out of date, some was hard to find and some data contradicted other data.”
And in Idaho, there is even less formal tracking and transparency than in most other states. Idaho is one of the few states that does not share hospital data with the federal Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project. The HCUP would allow researchers to discern, for example, how many trips people make to Idaho emergency rooms because of opioids.
Still, elected officials and law enforcement officers in several Idaho counties have seen enough with their own eyes to believe they have a case. And death certificates for the past several years have recorded hundreds of overdose deaths in Idaho involving opioids.
“We don’t see [opioid abuse] as much. We don’t see the effects of it the way Ada or Twin Falls [counties] would,” Pember said of Gooding and Camas counties. “Meth was the scourge of 20 years ago, and it still is a scourge, but the opioids have found their own little niche in there.”
As a prosecutor, Pember said he sees cases of people stealing from their neighbors to get money for opioids.
“Then you find out they have prescriptions in four different places,” he said.
Chadwick and others noted that counties don’t have much to lose by signing on to the lawsuits. The law firms are taking on the cases without charge; they will get paid based on how much their clients earn in the end.
But, Chadwick said, he hopes Idaho’s counties don’t wait too long on a decision. At a certain point, courts will no longer allow newcomers to sign on to the litigation.