County joins federal lawsuits against opioid manufacturers

PORT TOWNSEND — The three Jefferson County commissioners voted unanimously to join other counties and governments around the state, including Clallam and Kitsap counties, in suing manufacturers and wholesalers of opioid-based prescription drugs.

Jefferson County will engage the law firm of Keller Rohrback as a special deputy prosecuting attorney to represent them in federal lawsuits against manufacturers of opioid-based prescription drugs including Purdue Phara, Endo Health Solutions, and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, and distributors including McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen.

If successful, awards would be used to create and maintain human service programs, aid in emergency response and drug clinic costs and help with the costs associated with imprisoning people who are addicted to opioids.

During a special meeting Wednesday, commissioners David Sullivan, Kathleen Kler and Kate Dean heard Chief Civil Prosecuting Attorney Philip Hunsucker say the opioid crisis has come to Jefferson County and is likely to get worse.

He said it will seriously impact the county’s resources and human productivity, particularly in the sheriff’s office and public health.

Sheriff David Stanko and Undersheriff Art Frank, Prosecuting Attorney Michael Haas, Health Officer Dr. Tom Locke and Public Health Director Vicki Kirkpatrick were in attendance and all supported the action.

Hunsucker said that opioid drugs are highly addictive and that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has categorized this crisis as an epidemic.

He cited statistics for the county from the CDC, the state health department, and the Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute of the University of Washington.

“Jefferson County had 85 opioid prescriptions written for every 100 residents in 2016, higher than both the state and national averages,” Hunsucker said. “From 2012 to 2016, at least 15 county residents suffered fatal opioid overdoses, or a rate of 10.3 per 100,000 persons, above the state average.

“And 9 percent of 12th graders in the county reported misusing someone else’s prescription.”

Locke spoke about the dangers of opioid use.

“The drugs themselves are less effective than we thought and they are more dangerous. It’s a feature of the drug that as you take it, it becomes less and less effective. You’ll develop a physical withdrawal. You can progress to addiction or opiate use disorder.

“The drug industry pushed this idea that these pharmaceuticals were a very effective, safe treatment for chronic pain,” Locke said. “Evidence proved that was not true. Companies continued to push it very aggressively and made huge amounts of money.”

Opioids don’t just affect pain, they reprogram your brain, Locke said.

“These medications replace endorphins and shut your endorphins down. They temporarily relieve pain but as the drug wears off, they actually increase pain.

“Over time, the pain that people have is worse than the pain they had when they started. This feeds the overuse and addiction cycle. The overdose risk increases at much lower doses that we previously realized,” he said.

“The good news is that we have very effective treatments for opiate use disorder that can achieve 80 percent success rates. In substance abuse treatments, that’s a pretty extraordinary statistic.”

The contract with the law firm is on contingency, so attorney’s fees will be paid only if there is a recovery in the litigation.

The contract says that Keller Rohrback would advance all out-of-pocket costs, fees and expenses until there is a recovery. If litigation is not successful, the county’s exposure will be minimal because costs will be shared with other plaintiffs and Keller Rohrback’s other clients, commissioners were told.

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Jefferson County Editor/Reporter Jeannie McMacken can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at [email protected]

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