Saratoga County to sue drug companies over opioids

Photographer: ShuttershockPhotographer: Shuttershock

By Kassie Parisi

Gazette Reporter

SARATOGA COUNTY — In an effort to curb the opioid crisis in local municipalities, the county will pursue a lawsuit “against companies and potentially physicians responsible for careless practices related to the manufacturing, distribution and prescriptions of opioid pharmaceuticals.”

The Saratoga County Board of Supervisors  has authorized plans to pursue a lawsuit that will be filed in state Supreme Court in Suffolk County. Napoli Shkolnik PLLC, a firm headquartered in New York City that deals with pharmaceutical litigation, among other areas, will represent the county.

The firm has been retained by other municipalities across the country, including Nassau County and Dayton, Ohio, to deal with similar cases.

Saratoga is not the first county to turn to legal action as a means to keep addictive prescription drugs off the streets. In June, Schenectady County filed a state Supreme Court lawsuit against more than a dozen major pharmacy companies, alleging much of today’s epidemic can be blamed on drug companies’ policies pushing the sale of prescription painkillers. It was estimated that the crisis costs Schenectady County millions of dollars each year.

The goal of the lawsuits is to recover the massive sums of money that are spent by counties to deal with the opioid crisis, costs which include proper training for police departments and recovery services provided by county health groups.

Spencer Hellwig, Saratoga County administrator, described opioid addiction as a “public health issue” that has become so large and affected so many county departments that the Board of Supervisors decided to take action.

The process started, he said, with discussions among the board and first responders, law enforcement officials, mental health officials and other departments to gauge exactly how much is spent dealing with the opioid epidemic locally, and what can be done to get that money back.

“This is a step in that direction,” Hellwig said.

Hellwig said that while the county does have a sense of exactly how much goes toward dealing with the opioid crisis in different departments, exact numbers will be included in the lawsuit. The lawsuit will present no cost to taxpayers. Lawyers will only be paid if they win a settlement.

“It’s substantial enough that we’re taking this action,” Hellwig said. The county will be conducting in-depth audits of different departments, he said, to determine those exact dollar amounts.

“Like most areas of the state, opioid abuse has become an epidemic in Saratoga County,” said Ed Kinowski, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, in a news release. “The ease of access, and over-prescription of these dangerous drugs, has led to the death of too many of our friends and neighbors. The misrepresentation of the nature of these drugs has led to an alarming rise in addiction and overdoses.”

The lawsuit will target not only drug manufacturers, but potentially doctors who over-prescribe drugs such as morphine, hydrocodone and oxycodone to deal with pain. Hellwig claimed that drug companies often use reckless, aggressive and deceptive marketing campaigns to push the narcotics.

Many doctors, he added, prescribe the medication to patients with not enough emphasis on the drugs’ addictive nature, or a failure altogether to give patients information about possible side effects.

Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo said that the litigation is a good idea because it sends a message to the pharmaceutical companies that they are where the problem starts.

“I think it sends a message,” Zurlo said. “It’s a start. Will it go away? I don’t know. But we need to send a message.”

Zurlo added that his narcotic units are out on the streets constantly dealing with the ramifications of opioid overdoses. While he couldn’t say exactly how much the department commits annually in terms of resources to deal with the opioid epidemic, he said that he expected those numbers to come out with the lawsuit.

The opioid crisis spans across the nation. Drug overdose deaths in 2016 most likely exceeded 59,000, according to The New York Times, and drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans younger than 50. Many states, including West Virginia and California, have pursued similar lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies. President Donald Trump has pledged to tackle the epidemic, and said that he is considering declaring the crisis a national emergency next week.

Smaller efforts are being made to curb opioid addiction too. On Oct. 26, the towns of Halfmoon, Clifton Park, Stillwater, Ballston, Malta and Waterford will host a joint educational forum on understanding heroin and opioid use at Shenendehowa High School at 6 p.m.