County will join lawsuit against drug makers

Legal action seeks to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for costly opioid addiction epidemic

    Ozaukee County supervisors on Wednesday decided to join a growing number of Wisconsin counties suing pharmaceutical companies that make and market the drugs blamed for the national opioid addiction epidemic.
    The County Board voted 24-0 to sign on to a lawsuit that seeks to hold large pharmaceutical companies responsible for the epidemic that is sapping the local, state and federal agencies tasked with battling the drug dealers who feed addiction and help those whose lives have been shattered by opioids, a class of drugs that includes prescription painkillers such as oxycodone and morphine, as well as illegal drugs like heroin.
    Supr. Karl Hertz of Thiensville abstained from the vote after expressing concern that the lawsuit would not target the root of the addiction epidemic — illegal drugs like heroin — and could deter doctors from prescribing needed opioid pain medication.
    Ozaukee County is now one of 52 Wisconsin counties suing pharmaceutical manufacturers.
    “Opioid addiction is a significant driver of what we now do, and it constitutes a significant portion of our budget,” County Administrator Jason Dzwinel said. “It’s an unfortunate area of growth, some of which is really unseen by the public.”
    Ozaukee County and other plaintiffs will not bankroll the legal effort. Instead, the law firms representing the counties — the Milwaukee-area firms of van Briesen & Roper and Crueger Dickinson and the national firm of Simmons Hanly Conroy — would bear all costs of litigation and be reimbursed only if there is a judgment in the plaintiff’s favor.
    The only cost to the county would be  the staff time needed to help lawyers document the cost of dealing with opioid addiction, which in addition to assisting with the lawsuit will help illustrate the extent and impact of the local addiction epidemic, Dzwinel said.
    “Hopefully we can quantify the impact of addiction, which should shed more light on the epidemic for the public,” he said.
    The Wisconsin Counties Association is coordinating the lawsuit against so-called Big Pharma, the pharmaceutical companies that, according to background information distributed to supervisors, “flooded the market with highly addictive drugs claiming they were safe and efficacious for long-term use, manufactured studies to support these false claims and knowingly misrepresented the addictive nature of these drugs.
    “As a result of these misrepresentations, millions of American lives have been impacted or destroyed. The opioid epidemic has in turn imposed huge costs on both county and state governments around the country ....”
    The goal of the lawsuit is to “hold Pharma responsible for their role in creating the opioid epidemic and return to the counties the money spent battling the epidemic at the expense of other critical programming,” according to county documents.
    Among those on the front lines of the battle against the epidemic is Ozaukee County District Attorney Adam Gerol, who said opioid addiction is not only responsible for an increase in drug crimes but a surge in property crimes committed by those who steal to finance their addiction.
    “Certainly we see a lot of possession of heroin and possession of opioid cases, but what we’ve really seen an increase in is burglaries, thefts from cars and retail thefts,” he said.
    For years, the District Attorney’s Office filed about 150 felony cases a year. About a decade ago, that number spiked into the 300s and last year reached 389 cases, and drugs had a lot to do with it, Gerol said.
    “We set a record last year and are on track to set another record this year,” he said, referring to felony cases filed.
    “If we could go back to the days before drug addiction and just deal with alcohol and bar fights, we wouldn’t be as busy.”
    While opioids alone are not responsible for the drug addiction epidemic — “We have people who are just slamming Xanex,” a prescription drug used to treat anxiety, Gerol said — the connection between opioid painkillers and addiction that has fueled the market for illegal drugs like heroin is clear. In several of the cases Gerol has prosecuted, the stories are similar — a defendant who is prescribed an opioid pain medication by his doctor becomes addicted, and when his supply of medication is cut off, he turns to the illegal drug market to satisfy his addiction.
    “Very few people start out saying they want to be a heroin addict,” Gerol said. “They start out taking oxycodone, Vicodin or Percocet. That’s what they want, but eventually they can’t get it. Then we have this explosion of heroin, the cost of which hasn’t gone up in 10 years. We are just swimming in this drug.”
    Left to help people whose lives have been shattered by drug addiction is the Ozaukee County Human Services Department, and in many cases that means protecting the most vulnerable victims of the epidemic — children.
    “From our perspective, we see the impact of drug addiction everywhere,” Human Services Director Liza Drake said. “And the most highly affected by addition is often children and families.”
    Between 2012 and 2013, the number of children placed by the department outside of their homes because of drug abuse by their parents or other guardians jumped from the single to double digits, where it has remained since. Drug abuse, along with neglect and child behavior problems, both of which can be related to drug use in the house, are the leading reasons children are removed from their homes in Ozaukee County.
    And ensuring children are in a safe environment is often just the beginning of the department’s work. Counseling is a key component of helping children and families whose lives have been upended by drugs, Drake said.
    “Removing children from their home is pretty traumatic,” she said. “And in some cases, the children were completely exposed to their loved ones when they were using drugs.”Daily



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