Hillsborough County has joined the state of Florida in suing 14 opioid manufacturers and distributors, including Purdue Pharma - the maker of Oxycontin.
The lawsuit filed by Hillsborough County Tuesday says the makers of certain painkillers contributed to the opioid crisis by aggressively marketing opioids to doctors and patients as safe and effective for chronic pain, and downplaying the risk of addiction.
From the 108-page lawsuit: “Each Manufacturing Defendant knew that its misrepresentation of the risk and benefits of opioids were not supported by, or were directly contrary to, scientific evidence.”
It also says opioids are the most prescribed class of drugs, generating $11 billion in revenue for drug companies in 2014 alone.
In 2015, Hillsborough County had a prescribing rate of 65.6 opioid prescriptions per 100 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Attorney Mike Moore also represents several other cities and counties in similar suits across the country. He led the legal fight against tobacco companies and is now a nationally recognized leader in lawsuits against opioid manufacturers.
Moore said litigation is a tool to make sure taxpayers don't foot the bill for the opioid crisis.
"Just like BP paid to clean up the oil spill, we want these companies to pay to clean up the ‘pill spill’,” Moore said.
Purdue Pharma, one of the named defendants in the suit, has a statement on their website about the opioid crisis, which includes this:
We are acutely aware of the public health risks opioid analgesics can create, even when taken as prescribed. And we are deeply concerned about the toll the opioid crisis is having on individuals and communities across the nation, and as a company now led by a physician, we believe the country needs a new approach to prescribing opioids.
This approach includes supporting patient access to multi-modal pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic treatment options; ensuring opioids are only used when alternative treatment options are inadequate; and adopting public policies aimed at reducing addiction, abuse, diversion, and overdose related to opioids.
Sandra Murman, Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners Chairman, said the county will be presenting an action plan in the next 30 days. That plan will be dependent on funds won from the lawsuit.
“Without this lawsuit and the potential recoveries, we cannot get the vast numbers of people into treatment that need treatment,” Murman said.
Hillsborough County spent more than $35 million in the last five years for behavioral health-related services, averaging $7 million a year. Since 2012, according to the medical examiner, there have been more than 1,072 opioid overdose deaths in the county, a 24 percent increase over the last five years, with the highest number of overdose deaths in 2017.
Murman also said more babies are born addicted to opioids in Hillsborough County than anywhere else in Florida.
“That is a direct result of the fraudulent marketing of these drugs and the excessive amounts of these drug shipped into this county by these defendants,” Murman said.
A limited number of short-term detox beds and long-term residential treatment have made fighting the opioid crisis on the backend difficult.
“The place that has the most detox beds is really in our jail,” Murman said.
But as Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister points out, “This is not an epidemic we are going to arrest our way out of. It’s going to take treatment, prevention, education and enforcement.”
Murman estimates that every dollar spent on treatment will save $4 in health care and $7 in law enforcement expenditures.
“We do not expect the taxpayers of Hillsborough County to foot the bill for paying for the solution to this problem,” she said.
Instead, funds from the lawsuit - which does not ask for a specific amount of money and instead will likely come as a mass, multi-state settlement similar to the BP oil spill settlement in 2016 – will be used to cover the cost of expanding services to treat and prevent addiction.
"We're trying to use this as a tool to make these people provide some money so you can have prevention and education in this community, so you can have treatment, so you can have emergency response, so you have more drug courts,” Moore said. So you can try to save more lives and make a difference here. That's what this lawsuit is about."
In May, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi announced a similar lawsuit by the state, filed in a state court in Pasco County, blaming the companies for creating the crisis, which kills about 15 Floridians a day.