Oneida County weighs joining lawsuit against drug companies


Oneida County is weighing whether to sue to recover costs incurred as a result of the surge in the prescribing of narcotic painkillers.

More and more counties and other local governments across the country are filing litigation against drug companies, like the maker of OxyContin, to demand repayment for taxpayer costs the opioid epidemic has caused.

“In the coming weeks the county will pursue litigation to recover costs incurred as a result of the opioid epidemic from those who are responsible for the proliferation of prescription opioids in our communities,” said Oneida County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr. in his Oct. 4 budget address. As of last week, he said it was still premature to comment beyond what he said in his speech.

If filed, the intent would be to, it is hoped, to recoup some of the money absorbed by the county’s criminal justice and social services departments for everything from the addicts and suppliers who are arrested or hospitalized to those who die.

County Attorney Peter M. Rayhill said requests for proposals have been sent to law offices.

The county is seeking legal services to:

-- Determine the costs the county has incurred as a result of the prescription of opioids; and

-- Investigate and, if appropriate, commence and prosecute litigation against manufacturers and distributors of prescription opiates for damages to the county from the marketing and distribution of opiates.

Reponses are due Oct. 25 at the law department.

Law firms are taking on cities, counties and states around the U.S. as clients in a legal strategy modeled on successful litigation states brought against tobacco makers in the 1990s. The foundation of the painkiller lawsuits is the premise is that the pharmaceutical companies and several key doctors who promoted opioid use and concealed the risk of addiction should be held responsible for the drugs’ monetary toll.

Typically counties pay nothing to participate in the litigation. The law firm would keep a percentage of the drug makers’ future settlement payment and recover its expenses through that payout if and when it reaches that stage.

Governments are seeking reimbursement for what they have spent on drug rehabilitation, hospital treatment, overdose autopsies and other public costs of opioid addiction.

“We continue to see the devastating effects of opioid abuse in our community,” said Picente as he laid out his budget proposal to the Board of Legislators. “Ninety-one Americans die per day from opioid abuse. Roughly 21 to 29 percent of prescribed opioids for chronic pain are misused. About 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids.”

The goal of the lawsuits is to force drug makers into a massive settlement similar to one that 46 states reached with the four largest tobacco manufacturers in 1998 to compensate them for medical costs incurred as a result of illness resulting from use of tobacco products. As a result, Oneida County received millions of dollars.


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