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County commissioners could seek to recoup public costs of painkiller addiction after Thursday vote

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - Paula Johnson spent months kicking an opioid addiction after a knee injury in 2013.Multnomah County leaders are poised to sue the makers of prescription opioid painkillers, accusing them of improperly foisting a costly epidemic on local residents.

On Thursday, July 27, the Board of Commissioners will vote on declaring opioids a "public nuisance." Chair Deborah Kafoury calls it a first step toward a broader lawsuit.

In an interview, she likened the suit to litigation against Big Tobacco. She noted opioid painkiller pills often are a gateway to heroin addiction.

"We are exchanging almost 4 million needles a year, which is double what we were doing in 2012," Kafoury said. "I think that the board needs to call this flood of opiates for what it is. It's a costly, deadly public nuisance — and the people in Multnomah County are paying for this nuisance."

The proposed board resolution was introduced by Commissioner Sharon Meieran, an emergency room doctor. It sets up a potential legal action based on the same public nuisance laws used to sue owners of dilapidated properties.

Meieran, who pursued opioid reforms long before running for office, said said she has seen overdoses in the E.R. and now, as commissioner, the impacts to indlviduals, families and society. The county's push toward legal action is about "the cost that we've all had to pay as a result of this devastating epidemic that was caused by the big pharmauetical companies," she said. "They need to be held accountable."

Similar declarations and lawsuits already have been filed in other states, including West Virginia and Ohio. In those cases, drug makers have denied wrongdoing.

The legal theory amounts to a new twist on past lawsuits, which have accused manufacturers of deceptive marketing and other improper practices.

But for now, it's unclear which drug makers the county intends to sue, or when.

"We're letting the legal team decide exactly how we're going to proceed," Kafoury said.

Multnomah County will work with the same lawyer that has pursued cases elsewhere, Craig Lowell of Wiggins Childs Pantazis Fisher Goldfarb, a Birmingham, Alabama, firm. Former east county Democratic state lawmaker Nick Kahl will serve as local counsel on the case.

The goal is to recoup funds that can help pay for the effects of opiate addiction, including the costs to county government.

"Public resources have been overtaxed and diverted in an effort to combat the ongoing opioid epidemic," according to the draft board resolution, which goes on to say that the demand for treatment and services "greatly exceeds the supply of those resources. In addition, substantial public dollars have been, and continue to be, directed toward the prosecution of crimes directly attributable to opioid addiction and the subsequent incarceration and supervision of people in Multnomah County on opioid-related charges."

According to statistics compiled by the county:

• Between 2013 and 2015, ambulances responded to nonfatal opioid overdoses in Multnomah County nearly twice a day, a total of 1,949 times. Those took place in public places or businesses.

• In Washington, Clackamas and Multnomah counties combined, pharmacies dispensed 1.4 million opioid prescriptions in 2015 — nearly one opioid prescription per resident.

• There were 861 opioid-related deaths in Multnomah County between 2009 and 2015.

Paula Johnson, a Parkrose resident, says she was nearly one of the statistics. A prescription for oxycodone and oxycontin following knee surgery soon hooked her, making her violently ill when she tried unsuccessfully to cut back.

"I had no clue" how addictive the drugs would be, Johnson said. "I had no idea what I was messing with."

She eventually had to enter a drug treatment program to kick her cravings, and to this day avoids opiate painkillers as much as possible.

Johnson said she doesn't think the manufacturers of painkillers are being held accountable for their actions.

"I think they're definitely knowledgeable about what they are doing," she said. "It's a money game and that's all it's about. They could care less about the patients or a cure to this problem."

"How may more lives have to be sacrificed before pharmaceutical companies step up to the plate and take responsibility?" she added, noting that while doctors play a role, "It's gotta start with somebody."

This is not the first litigation by Multnomah targeting a national problem. Last year, the county settled a suit with a company blamed for an epidemic of improper foreclosures, Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems. In that case the county collected $9 million in a settlement.

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