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El Paso County won’t join federal opioid lawsuit against Big Pharma 

click to enlarge Opioid painkillers were involved in 102 deaths in El Paso County in 2017. - JESS RODRIGUES / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Jess Rodrigues / Shutterstock.com
  • Opioid painkillers were involved in 102 deaths in El Paso County in 2017.
El Paso County won’t join a federal lawsuit against Big Pharma that could bring in tens of millions of dollars.

“After receiving input from various County departments and elected offices it is clear that determining the direct impacts from prescription opioid abuse on county programs and services would be imprecise at best and speculative at worst,” county spokesperson Dave Rose tells the Independent in an email.
But deputy coroner Dr. Leon Kelly provided an estimate on April 13 to the County Attorney’s Office that his office spent $219,810 in 2017 for autopsies conducted on 102 people whose deaths were related to opioids.

More than 600 agencies across the country have joined a federal lawsuit against some of the largest drug-makers and distributors in the country alleging they bear responsibility for their “false and misleading statements” about the risks and benefits of painkillers. For example, Huerfano County, whose county seat is Walsenburg, has joined and estimates the impact at $750,000 in economic damages and $1.5 million in future damages.

The suit is said to be the biggest multi-plaintiff action against an industry since the big tobacco litigation, which led to a $206 billion settlement in 1998 between the four largest companies and about 46 states, including Colorado, that received payouts for 25 years.

“There are likely more than 5,500 county residents who are currently addicted to opioids,” says Stephen Ochs, a former medical doctor who is now an attorney representing clients in four states, including Colorado, in the national opioid lawsuit. A payout to the county could fund public education, recovery facilities, rehabilitation programs, emergency responders, law enforcement and child services, he says.

Hundreds of millions in federal fines haven’t discouraged drug companies from promoting their highly addictive products, he says. On May 29, The New York Times reported that a confidential Department of Justice report shows federal prosecutors found that Purdue Pharma, which is named in the federal lawsuit, knew of “significant” abuse of OxyContin, a powerful opioid painkiller, in the first years after the drug was introduced in 1996 and concealed that information.

But El Paso County commissioners aren’t interested. “The expense of litigation adds to the cost of almost everything for everybody and the Board of County Commissioners has, thus far, declined to enter into any of these lawsuits,” Rose said, noting the “desired change in behavior” in the drug industry “will be accomplished with or without El Paso County’s participation in this litigation.”

Ochs notes the county’s cost of litigation would be zero and it could receive tens of millions of dollars if it participates in the lawsuit.

The 2017 El Paso County Coroner’s Office report shows opioids played a role in 92 of 147 drug-related accidental deaths and 10 of the 164 suicides.

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