Health & Medicine

Drug makers and pharmacies must pay for their role in opioid addiction, counties argue

In a legal strike against big drug makers and national pharmacy chains, dozens of California counties are filing federal lawsuits alleging racketeering and fraud by companies that they blame for the spiraling costs of the nation's opioid epidemic.

Sacramento, Placer, El Dorado and nine other northern California counties filed suit Tuesday in federal court in Sacramento against more than two dozen defendants they say have created a public nuisance by manufacturing and distributing prescription painkillers that killed 64,000 Americans in 2016.

"The number of annual opioid prescriptions written in the United States is now roughly equal to the number of adults in the population," a 322-page lawsuit filed by Placer County says. "Many Americans are now addicted to prescription opioids, and the number of deaths due to prescription opioid overdose is unacceptable."

Brett Holt, supervising deputy county counsel for Placer County, said the suit is part of a nationwide effort by government entities to seek repayment for costs run up by health departments, prosecutors, police and other agencies in dealing with the epidemic.

"Part of this is making sure we capture all of the damages," Holt said. "The damages to the D.A.'s office, the health department, probation and the sheriff's office."

In Placer County for instance, the lawsuit says 14 people died in 2016 from opioid overdoses, and that 93 have died from 2008 through 2016.

Statewide, the suit claims there were 1,925 opioid-related deaths in 2016 and blames the makers of such drugs for "false, deceptive and unfair marketing" that made opioids the most prescribed class of drugs, generating $11 billion in revenues for drug companies in 2010.

Companies ranging from Pennsylvania-based AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp. to Wal-Mart Inc. are named in the suits and blamed for marketing campaigns aimed at selling and distributing drugs like OxyContin and others to "falsely assure physicians and patients that opioids are safe" and to "trivialize" the danger of addiction.

AmerisourceBergen did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and Walgreens, another defendant, would not comment.

But a spokesman for the Healthcare Distribution Alliance representing distributors named in the suits said the lawsuits are misplaced.

“The misuse and abuse of prescription opioids is a complex public health challenge that requires a collaborative and systemic response that engages all stakeholders," said John Parker, the trade group's senior vice president. "Given our role, the idea that distributors are responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and is regulated.

"Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation.”

With politicians from local leaders to President Trump decrying opioid use as an epidemic, some companies already have begun pushing back, including AmerisourceBergen, which announced a grant program two weeks ago "to redefine best practices across the country in the fight against the opioid epidemic."

But the individual lawsuits filed against the firms present a massive legal challenge in federal court districts nationwide as each county presses its own arguments on damages it has faced from the epidemic.

In Sacramento County, for instance, its lawsuit states that "over 1,188,800 prescriptions were written in 2016 in Sacramento County alone" and that 698 people died from 2012 to 2014 from drug overdoses.

"From 2008 to 2015, over 8.5 million opioid prescriptions were reported in the County, or almost 740 prescriptions per 1,000 residents," the suit says.

Statewide, 30 counties have filed or are expected to file such lawsuits, according to Placer County's Holt.

"Placer County isn't unique in suffering these types of damages, and that's what led to a consortium of counties to file these lawsuits with the same firm," he said.

The suits are being filed by Baron & Budd, P.C. of Solana Beach and are expected to include Butte, Calaveras, Contra Costa, Del Norte, El Dorado, Fresno, Glenn, Imperial, Inyo, Lassen, Madera, Mariposa, Mendocino, Merced, Modoc, Mono, Monterey, Nevada, Plumas, San Benito, San Diego, Shasta, Siskiyou, Sutter, Tehama, Trinity, Tuolumne and Yuba counties.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee