Going after drug companies a good first step for Clay in war against opioids

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Clay’s Board of County Commissioners voted last week to join a growing lawsuit against drugmakers who’ve recklessly flooded the marketplace with opioids to create the worst man-made epidemic in modern medical history.

That’s a good start, but there’s so much more that needs to be done.

More than 130 people die every day of an opioid overdose in the U.S., according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. We all know someone who’s struggling with opioid addiction, or worse, someone who’s died from it. They’re our parents, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, best friends and next-door neighbors. And until now, there hasn’t been much we can do about it.

By starting with the head of the snake – Big Pharma – we can continue with the steps needed to get illegal pills off the street and reign in the business of pain management.

“The time is now,” said county attorney Courtney K. Grimm.

Clay County joined Bradford, Hamilton, Suwannee and St. Johns counties, as well as the city of St. Augustine, in the national racketeering lawsuit against 20 drug manufacturers and marketers. It asks the companies pay back for the costs relating to health and medical care, training for first responders, child protective services, public information campaigns, counseling and rehabilitation services, mental health treatment, infants born with opioid dependency and the loss of property values in areas affected most by the addiction.

Six law firms asked commissioners “to represent Clay County in litigation against various entities responsible for the opioid epidemic and the costs that the County has incurred to date and will likely incur in the future in combating this crisis.”

The three-biggest targets are McKesson, Cardinal Health and Amerisource Bergen. Those three distributors control nearly 90% of the opioid market.

The group now has 14 counties in Florida, Ohio and South Carolina as clients, as well as 14 cities and South Florida Behavioral Health. They claim Big Pharma encouraged doctors to prescribe long-term and high-dose opioids for chronic pain, while misrepresenting the risks of misuse and addiction. When the U.S. started cracking down on how pills are prescribed, addicts turned to the black market where opioids are readily available. It also pushed addicts to stronger opioids like heroin and fentanyl.

Clay officials don’t know how much the county can expect to recoup if the racketeering lawsuit is successful. There already are indications the settlement will be several billions, which would rival what Big Tobacco was forced to pay out in 1998, but it pales to the $1.05 trillion pharmaceutical manufacturers made in 2016.

Purdue Pharma already got the ball rolling when it agreed to pay the State of Oklahoma $270 million for fueling that state’s opioid crisis.

Overdoses killed more than 350,000 people in this country from 1999 through 2015, the lawsuit contends. Of those, more than 200,000 died from pills prescribed by doctors for pain.

While lawyers fight Big Pharma in court, state and local agencies need to make doctors more accountable for their roles in the crisis. Whether through ignorance, negligence or a desire to repay drugmakers for favors, some doctors have over-prescribed pain killers that helped create the epidemic.

At the same time, we need to require treatment centers to show results. Keeping a patient on synthetic opioids like methadone for several years only sustains their addiction, not treat it. There are addicts in this community who’ve been taking drugs like methadone for more than five years. That’s outrageous.

Treatment means fixing the problem, not prolonging it. Patients should be given a long-term plan with an end date to rid themselves of addictive chemicals. That means creating a plan to eventually wheen them off drugs like methadone, even if it takes a couple years, not making them a prisoner of daily doses for the rest of their lives.

The opioid crisis is real. And it’s deadly. Holding scrupulous companies that put millions of pills into our community is a good start.

But there’s so much more that needs to be done.

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