County mulls whether to sue drug companies

Marina Riker By Marina Riker

Dec. 4, 2017 at 9:12 p.m.
Updated Dec. 5, 2017 at 4:38 p.m.

   Advocate file photos for The Victoria Advocate

Victoria County could join dozens of other Texas counties that are suing drug companies to recover costs spent fighting the opioid addiction crisis.

Monday, commissioners discussed whether to join a growing list of counties nationwide that are filing lawsuits against painkiller manufacturers and distributors. During the meeting, commissioners decided to continue the discussion next week about whether the lawsuit is a potential remedy to the situation in Victoria.

"There's more to this than dollars and cents," said County Judge Ben Zeller. "There's an impact on the community."

Nationwide, opioid-related deaths account for more than 60 percent of overdoses in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2015, there were more than 33,000 opioid-related deaths in the U.S., 1,186 of which were in Texas.

Victoria County medical director and local health authority Dr. John McNeill said opioid addiction is becoming an increasingly common problem. Emergency medical providers have administered Narcan - a lifesaving drug to reverse opioid overdoses - 21 times in Victoria County within the past six months, he said.

The number of people dealing with opioid addiction, however, is higher than just those 21 people, he said.

"A lot of these patients that overdose and die are young people," said McNeill.

If Victoria County decides to move forward, the lawsuit would name prescription drug manufacturers and distributors that sold the drugs in the county.

Amy Carter, an attorney based in Dallas, said the case would argue that prescription drug companies downplayed the risk of opioid addiction when marketing the drugs to doctors.

Opioid addiction became a growing problem after 1999 when pharmaceutical companies started marketing the drugs to treat chronic pain and didn't outline the risks of addiction, she said. Before that, opiates were only used during end-of-life care or to treat major injuries, she said.

"Essentially, doctors in your community were being lied to," Carter said.

Some commissioners asked whether drug companies would attack local doctors or pharmacies if sued. But the attorneys said the lawsuit would instead place blame on the manufacturers and distributors for misleading local medical professionals.

The lawsuit would seek damages to pay for the financial toll of the addiction crisis, which could include expenses at the county's hospital and jail, Carter said.

Commissioner Danny Garcia said the lawsuit could be a way to raise awareness about the addiction crisis for both the public and doctors.

"Maybe by filing a lawsuit like this, it would make them a little more aware of what they're prescribing," Garcia said.



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