Nearly all of Arkansas’ county governments are now part of a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors.
The lawsuit, which now includes 69 of Arkansas’ 75 county governments, was initially formed by officials with the Association of Arkansas Counties, the Arkansas Municipal League and the Arkansas Public Entities Risk Management Association. Its intent is to “hold accountable the nation’s leading pharmaceutical companies over their misleading and deceptive marketing of prescription opioid painkillers,” a Thursday news release from the three organizations states.
Sebastian, Crawford, Franklin, Logan and Scott counties are five of the 69 Arkansas counties in the lawsuit, and Fort Smith is one of around 100 Arkansas cities in the lawsuit.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen that the municipal association and the county association have gotten together and unified to make a statement and combat this,” Sebastian County Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck said. Hollenbeck is a member of Arkansas’ Opioid Task Force.
The lawsuit aims to bring together county judges, sheriffs, mayors, fire chiefs, police chiefs, coroners and first responders in addressing opioid abuse, the release states. The county and city governments will be represented by several law firms, including Cory Watson out of Birmingham, Ala., Arkansas Counties litigation council member Colin Jorgensen said.
Benton, Jefferson, Pulaski, Crittenden, Cleveland and Drew counties are not currently in the lawsuit.
“They may still join. It’s not too late,” Jorgensen said of those counties’ governments. Jorgensen also said that those county governments are free to sue pharmaceutical manufacturing and distribution companies under a separate lawsuit if they wish.
Though Arkansas ranked 37th in in the United States for drug overdose deaths per 100,000 people in 2016 at 14 per 100,000 people, its prescribing rate for painkillers was one of the highest in the country during that period of time. At an average of 114.6 prescription painkillers per 100 people, Arkansas held the second-highest statewide prescribing rate in 2016, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At the Crawford County Opioid Education Summit Wednesday, Arkansas Drug Director Kirk Lane called opioid abuse “a problem that’s growing very quickly and moving into the state very quickly.”
John Parker, Senior Vice President of the Heathcare Distribution Alliance, responded to Fort Smith joining the opioid lawsuit on Jan. 18. He stated that distributors “aren’t willing to be scapegoats” of the opioid crisis and are taking steps to be part of the solution.
Parker said that distributors don’t make, market, prescribe or dispense medicines to consumers. He said that distributors “are logistics companies that arrange for the safe and secure storage, transport, and delivery of medicines from manufacturers to pharmacies, hospitals, long-term care facilities, and others based on prescriptions from licensed physicians” in his Jan. 18 statement.
“The idea that distributors are solely responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and how it is regulated,” Parker said in his statement.
Hollenbeck, however, said that pharmaceutical companies “have sold a bill of goods” to doctors and undersold the addictive nature of prescription painkillers. He said that this has led to the over-prescription of the drugs.
“Oxycotin was originally for terminally ill cancer patients. Now we’re prescribing it for routine surgeries and so forth,” Hollenbeck said.
Overall, Hollenbeck called the lawsuit “a big step” in addressing opioid abuse in Arkansas.
•(The lawsuit) is one way of dealing with the massive issues that we have,” Hollenbeck said. “We have got to get the pharmaceutical companies to take ownership of what they’ve done.”