RINGGOLD, Ga. — The Catoosa County Commission will ask pharmaceutical makers to pay for the scourge of the opioid epidemic.
Following local governments throughout the country, the commission voted unanimously Tuesday to sue drug companies and health care suppliers. Members say this lawsuit should cover the added costs to the government that are a result of the increase in opioid addictions since the turn of the century.
Commission Chairman Steve Henry said 116 opioid prescriptions have been written for every 100 people in the county.
"It's a real crisis that we're all experiencing," Commissioner Jim Cutler said. "Unfortunately, that has no limitations or boundaries."
The county entered a contract with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, a law firm that will represent it in the suit. The firm is taking the case on a contingency basis, with the county only paying if it wins. If the suit is successful, the county would cover the firm's expenses and pay one-third of the earnings from the lawsuit.
Scott Masterson, a lawyer at the firm and County Attorney Chad Young's brother, will represent the local government. He isn't sure what defendants will be named, though he added that Purdue Pharma is an obvious target. The company produces OxyContin.
Masterson will file the case in the Northern District of Georgia, a federal court. He expects a judge to move the lawsuit to Ohio, where it could become part of a class-action lawsuit against drug makers.
How could the county measure the impact of the opioid crisis here? Masterson said the firm's team will research different quantifiable measures. It could look at the cost of first responders reporting to homes where people have overdosed. It can also look at the cost of holding addicts in the Catoosa County Jail, of prosecuting an uptick in addiction-related crimes, of treating people who have overdosed or are suffering from other illnesses as the result of their addictions.
He also mentioned "lack of productivity" — as in, how many people aren't working because they are addicted. It's not clear how lawyers would objectively make this case, when a drug maker could argue several factors impact the quality of someone's health and life, to say nothing of the fact that addicts may use multiple types of drugs.
"It should be contrasted with the revenue increases for Purdue and other manufacturers," Masterson said. "In light of increasing numbers of opioid deaths and medical harm, not to mention destruction of family units, they have been investing more in getting that drug prescribed."
According to CNN, the number of opioid prescriptions from doctors increased annually from 112 million in 1992 to 282 million in 2012. That is a 151 percent increase. As a result of more addicts in the United States, there were 42,000 overdoses involving an opioid in 2016.
Across the country, governments have filed lawsuits against drug manufacturers and health care providers, arguing that more pills in the community have created a social cost from which people and agencies are scrambling to recover. According to the Tennessean, government representatives have filed lawsuits in Ohio, Mississippi, Illinois, New York, California and the Cherokee Nation.
Locally, the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners voted on Feb. 12 to let its attorney and county administrator pursue a lawsuit related to the opioid epidemic. In Tennessee, a group of district attorneys has filed lawsuits against Purdue, Mallinckrodt and Endo Pharmaceuticals.
The prosecutors are using the obscure "crack tax," a 2005 state law that allows them to sue drug dealers. Here, they are arguing these companies are similar to a gang member, slinging heroin or cocaine on a street corner. James Stranch, a Nashville attorney filing the lawsuits on behalf of the prosecutors, said 14 of the state's judicial districts have joined the effort.
This includes District 9, which covers Loudon, Meigs, Morgan and Roane counties. It also includes District 10, which covers Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties.
Asked in an email if Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston has joined or is interested in joining a similar lawsuit, spokeswoman Melydia Clewell wrote, "No."
In response to an article about the lawsuits, a spokeswoman for manufacturer Endo Health Solutions told the Tennessean that the company has taken several steps to try to prevent illegal use of the drug. Other manufacturers have said these lawsuits are unfair.
In Catoosa County, Young said the commissioners have received form letters from about six law firms in the past month, asking the local government to file a suit against manufacturers. Dade County Executive Ted Rumley said his office has received a couple of letters, too. The commissioners have not yet debated a lawsuit's merits there.
Walker County spokesman Joe Legge said Commissioner Shannon Whitfield has not decided whether to file a lawsuit, though he thinks "it's worth looking into."
Catoosa County Manager Jim Walker, who resigned Tuesday night, compared the lawsuit to a 1998 case that state governments brought against tobacco manufacturers. There is one key difference, however. With pain medications, companies lobby doctors, who decide whether to prescribe medication to patients. Smokers simply buy a pack at a convenience store.
Still, Commissioner Ray Johnson thinks the attention from that 1998 case — which resulted in a $200 billion settlement — helped curb smoking. He thinks a lawsuit against drug companies can have the same effect.
"Yes, it was a big fine and stuff," Johnson said of the previous litigation. "But I'm more concerned in letting people know the dangers of it and hope to keep people off of it."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.