WHATCOM — The county is suing the largest manufacturers of prescription opioids in the country.
A federal lawsuit, filed on June 27 by the county Prosecutor’s Office, asks for damages from pharmaceutical companies for their role in “creating the opioid crisis” — a crisis that has impacted Whatcom, the lawsuit alleges.
“As a direct result of defendants’ aggressive marketing scheme and failure to stop the flood of prescription opioids, Whatcom County has suffered significant and ongoing harms — harms that will continue well into the future,” the legal filing states.
The lawsuit against companies Purdue, Endo, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Mallinckrodt, Janssen, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson claims that they violated the Washington Consumer Protection Act and federal RICO statute. It also asserts that the defendants’ actions constituted public nuisance, negligence, gross negligence and unjust enrichment under Washington law.
The county makes the argument that these drug companies “provided false and misleading information to doctors and patients about the safety and efficacy of prescription opioids over approximately the last 20 years.”
Whatcom is estimated to have the second highest rate of treatment admissions for opioids in Washington State. And the dollars spent for treatment, prevention and otherwise are costing taxpayers, according to the legal filing.
Opioid-related overdoses have become the leading cause of death in the United States for those under 50, overtaking cancer and suicide, according to a 2016 report of the Centers for Disease Control. More than 300,000 people have died from fatal opioid overdoses since 2000.
Prescription opioids are a class of powerful pain relievers, and the chemical makeup of these prescription drugs is nearly identical to heroin.
A 2016-2019 Community Health Needs Assessment for PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center found that Whatcom County ranked third in Washington for overall negative impacts from heroin abuse, and sixth for overall negative impacts to prescription opioids.
The assessment also found that opioid abuse of prescription drugs and heroin has grown steadily in the past 15 years in Whatcom.
The county currently devotes “substantial resources” to addressing the opioid crisis, and is hoping to be awarded reimbursement for the “substantial costs” it has incurred in the battle against the epidemic, said Karen Frakes, chief civil deputy prosecuting attorney.
The legal complaint refers to costs associated with naloxone distribution, which is a shared expenditure between the county and local agencies providing Basic Life Support services. Nearly all of the funding for the opioid overdose-reversal drug comes from the Whatcom County EMS Levy.
The Bellingham Fire Department administered naloxone at 127 incidents in 2017, at a cost of $10,930.53. Fire District 7 of Ferndale delivered 48 doses of naloxone that same year for a cost of $2,354.57, according to the county.
Legal system impacts of the drug crisis are also touched on in the lawsuit.
“As heroin use surges, community safety is impacted as more and more citizens fall victim to serious property crimes committed by those trying to fund their addictions,” according to Whatcom County chief criminal deputy Eric Richey, in a direct statement found in the legal filing. “The need for more public resources to provide adequate services to victims of crime and to provide adequate care and treatment alternatives to offenders has never been more glaringly apparent.”
The lawsuit joins others brought forward by cities including Anacortes, Mount Vernon, Burlington, Seattle and Tacoma. An estimated 700 lawsuits have been filed by many jurisdictions nationwide in federal district courts over the issue, Frakes said.
These legal filings have been consolidated and transferred to the Northern District of Ohio, and will be heard by the Honorable Dan A. Polster, Frakes said.
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