Opioid lawsuit preparation continues

PORT ANGELES — Work on preparing Clallam County’s lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors is still underway as a federal judge looks at settling more than 400 similar lawsuits from cities, counties and tribes across the nation within the year.

Clallam County commissioners voted 3-0 Jan. 30 to retain the Seattle law firm Keller Rohrback and join hundreds of other government entities across the nation in the federal multi-district litigation in an effort to recover the cost of fighting the opioid epidemic locally.

The Jamestown S’Klallam, Port Gamble S’Klallam and Suquamish tribes filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court earlier this month.

A representative of Keller Rohrback told the Clallam County Board of Health on Tuesday that the firm had been appointed to the damages committee for the multi-district litigation and that the firm is putting together a team of experts who will work to determine what the damages have been in counties.

Not all responded

Officials on the Board of Health told the firm that not all of the county’s departments had yet responded to a questionnaire asking about the impact of opioids. That included the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office.

“We would anticipate a lot of the county’s costs would be in law enforcement,” said Dr. Chris Frank, Clallam County health officer. “The jail is a high-cost part of the system.”

More than 400 lawsuits — filed by cities, counties and tribes across the nation — are being consolidated in a federal court in Ohio. Proceedings will be overseen by Judge Dan Aaron Polster.

Polster is encouraging the plaintiffs and defendants to reach a settlement sooner rather than later, with hopes of coming to a resolution that addresses the national crisis by the end of the year.

Several county departments already had responded to the questionnaire, many of which said they had seen increased costs that are directly related to opioid use disorder.

District Court No. 2 responded to the questionnaire, saying many cases are related to drug use, though it’s difficult to put a dollar amount on how much has been spent dealing with those cases.

The Prosecuting Attorney’s Office said the opioid epidemic has increased costs to the general fund due to more opioid-related prosecutions and more opioid-caused overdoses.

Juvenile and Family Services said it has seen a rising number of children in the dependency system due to the opioid epidemic.

“Most/many of these children are removed from homes where drugs and opioids are being used,” according to the department’s questionnaire. “The youth require foster families, [Court Appointed Special Advocates] volunteers and volunteer coordinators, court clerking and staffing hours, attorney and court costs, etc.”

Health and Human Services reported having several programs associated with the opioid epidemic and is able to track data back to 2013.

Health and Human Services has seen an increase in the number of clients and number of syringes exchanged, has seen an increased emphasis on naloxone distribution and is now seeing the number of reported opioid overdoses declining.

“Clallam County has been hit hard by the opioid crisis,” the department wrote in its questionnaire. “Putting more effort into addressing the public health aspect of the opioid crisis ultimately results in a loss of capacity to address other important public health programs such as communicable disease investigations, immunizations and well child screening.”

The opioid-related death rate in Clallam County was 16.5 per 100,000 from 2012 to 2016, according to state Department of Health statistics.

Mason County had the second-highest opioid death rate at 14.7 per 100,000, health officials said.

Jefferson County’s opioid-related death rate was 10.3 per 100,000, ranking No. 10 among the 39 counties of the state.

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Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at jmajor@peninsuladailynews.com.

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