The statistics are staggering: opioid-involved overdose fatalities in the United States in 2019 rose to 49,860 according to a report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That accounted for 70.6% of all drug-related deaths in the United States, prompting municipalities across the country to file multiple lawsuits against drug manufacturers and pharmaceuticals. Suffolk County was the first municipality in the state, and the second municipality in the nation to commence action.
The lawsuits are coming to fruition, as New York State Attorney General Letitia announced last week a $230 million settlement with Johnson & Johnson, (J&J), for the company’s role in the nation’s opioid crisis. Rob Calarco, Suffolk County Legislature’s Presiding Office and 7th District Legislator, detailed what this means for Suffolk County. “My understanding is that Suffolk County will be receiving better than 8 percent of the Johnson & Johnson settlement,” Calarco said in a telephone interview this week. That translate to an estimated $18 million, with provisions that money from this lawsuit be directed towards opioid-related costs associates with the pandemic, treatment, educational programming, intervention and other potential impacts. Calarco notes since the onset of the pandemic, numbers of opioid related overdose deaths continued to spiral upward.
Suffolk Legislators launched actions against J&J and numerous other entities responsible for the opioid epidemic spiraling out of control even before the New York State Attorney General’s Office. It was February 2, 2014 when Calarco introduced legislation to appoint a six-member committee to explore viability of legal action against drug manufacturers. The panel included representatives from the County Health Department, law and Police departments, Budget Office, and Social Services. In addition to J&J, manufacturers named in the suit include Purdue Pharma and its affiliates, and members of the Seckler Family (owners of Purdue); Mallinckrodt, LLC and its affiliates; Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc. and its affiliates; and Allergan Finance, LLC and its affiliates. Following the resolution, Calarco shepherded a resolution that authorized special counsel to launch legal actions against the parties. The Legislature enlisted the services of the law firm, Simmons Hanly Conroy, LLC to represent the County in the multipronged series of litigations on a contingent basis.
While the County will not be paying out of pocket to attorneys for litigation against drug manufactures and affiliates, Calarco notes there are costs to the County that have been associated with the growing opioid epidemic. “The opioid crisis costs money in several ways,” Calarco said, adding, “There is a large societal cost — addiction problems, people not being a productive because of their addictions, the loss of life due to overdoses and, the County has 10,000 employees who receive health care from us who may have been affected.”
The J&J settlement is the first in what the County hopes will evolve into additional suits. The case commenced last week against Endo and Teva and distributors, and, Calarco
said there are pending lawsuits with four larger pharmacies including Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid and Walmart. “The crux of the case is that these are extremely addictive substances, and medications that used to be prescribed for end of life for the comfort of the patient” Calarco explained. But opioid use became more widespread as patients were given prescriptions for car accidents and sports injuries, and a multitude of other reasons. Increasing numbers of patients were becoming addicted, and when prescriptions were dropped from doctors’ offices, they sought opioids on the black market, with many eventually turning to heroin because it is cheaper than OxyContin and other pain narcotics. “The pharmaceutical companies did know opioids were highly addictive, they fudged the numbers, they had a responsibility to monitor prescriptions going out the door within a region and to red flag unusual activities,” Calarco said. But pills going out the doors at pharmacies far exceeded what was responsible based on the population, Calarco said, where people were “doctor shopping” for multiple doctors to acquire multiple pills. “This activity,” Calarco said, “is something that should have been highlighted” by pharmacies.
“Pharmaceutical companies should be held accountable for the costs they have inflicted through their irresponsible and deceptive marketing, all in the name of making a profit for their shareholders,” Calarco said. This (J&J) historical settlement and others that will hopefully following will not bring back those who were victims of this epidemic, but it is a significant step forward in facilitating justice for the families that were left behind.”
With Purdue presently in bankruptcy proceedings, municipalities have a window of opportunity to take action against the company. “The Legislature will need to act fairly quickly through bankruptcy court because there is definitely a potential for some settlement there, but,” Calarco underscored, “we must act quickly.” Purdue Pharma’s proposed bankruptcy plan is undergoing voting by claimants and creditors. After the voting period, bankruptcy court will hold a confirmation hearing to consider whether to approve the plan. Those filing claims before July 30, 2020 are eligible to vote on the plan before the confirmation hearing, scheduled for August 9, 2021. Voters will help determine how the claims are handled in the bankruptcy court. Voters must be received by July 14, 2021.
Persons with addiction issues may call the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency hotline at (631) 949-1700.