Ga. city considers litigation against opioid companies

Officials said drug makers and distributors contributed to a “public health crisis” where patients are turned into addicts to feed corporate greed

By Susan McCord
The Augusta Chronicle

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Augusta is taking steps to join in litigation against manufacturers and distributors of prescription opioids for unfair marketing and failure to properly monitor distribution of the dangerous painkillers.

 Commissioners were handed a memo Tuesday detailing the role of the drug makers and distributors in contributing to a “public health crisis” where patients are turned into addicts to feed corporate greed.

City General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie said the lead counsel in the litigation would be Baron and Budd, headquartered in Dallas, if the commission finalizes plans to participate. Other law firms would also be involved.

Several commissioners including Marion Williams and Andrew Jefferson said they’d learned participating in the lawsuit will cost taxpayers nothing. In a similar case filed by Baron and Budd and other firms in Louisville, Ky., the firms would be awarded 30 percent of any cash settlement.

The memo cites Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics showing opioid prescribing rates in Augusta are above the national average of 66.5 per 100 people.

In 2016, the rate was 86.8 prescriptions per 100 people in Augusta-Richmond County, down from 110.4 per 100 in 2012. In neighboring Columbia County, the 2016 rate was 81 prescriptions per 100 people.

Opioids include drugs such as morphine, hydrocodone, fentanyl and methadone used pharmaceutically, as well as the illicit U-47700, manufactured fentanyl variants and heroin.

In October, Richmond County Sheriff’s Sgt. Joel Danko said opioid overdoses are up from 45 in 2015 and 2016 to 63 over the same 10-month period this year. Augusta Fire Chief Chris James said in November that first responders had administered 11 units of the overdose-reversing drug Narcan in two months. Statewide, 982 died from opioid overdoses in 2016, according to Georgia Department of Public Health data.

District Attorney Natalie Paine called the opioid problem an epidemic and said it’s the “strongest, deadliest and most heartless killer” she has faced, and that Augusta is only beginning to see the damage it will inflict.

Opioid addiction transcends age, race, socioeconomic status and “truly does not discriminate,” Paine said. “It has destroyed families, taken parents from their children, children from their parents and claimed the lives of people who would otherwise probably have never have been a drug addict if they hadn’t begun taking legal, prescribed medication.”

The memo suggests Augusta seek compensation for three times the damages the city has sustained, as well as attorney fees, under federal or state racketeering acts, or damages under fair business practice or public nuisance actions.

Some commissioners questioned whether Augusta could show that the local government has been harmed by opioids. “We’d have to show damages,” Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said.

Augusta would join Fulton, DeKalb and other Georgia counties and cities in filing suit against opioid manufacturers and distributors.

Copyright 2017 The Augusta Chronicle

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