Commissioners join lawsuit over opioid drugs

LISBON — County commissioners are going to join the growing wave of lawsuits being filed against major drug wholesalers blamed for playing a major role in Ohio’s opioid crisis.

Commissioners agreed on Wednesday to contract with the Cleveland-area law firm of Lancione & Lancione, which will represent the county in a yet-to-be-filed lawsuit against the three largest wholesalers of opioids in the country. Other counties and cities across Ohio are doing the same.

Commissioner Mike Halleck said Lancione’s office contacted the office several months ago to determine if the county was interested in being part of a lawsuit seeking millions of dollars in damages from the drug wholesalers. After researching it further and discussing the matter with fellow commissioners Jim Hoppel and Tim Weigle, Halleck said they decided to participate.

“The important thing is if this takes a preventive step in trying to eradicate some of our drug issues it will be worth it,” he said.

Halleck said he was initially concerned about getting involved because he wanted to be assured it was for the right reasons. He agreed to participate only after the law firm went into great detail to explain why it believes drug wholesalers contributed to the opioid crisis and record number of drug overdoses.

“I had mixed emotions … but the compelling fact for me is some of the distributors are lax in how much they distributed to doctors” and pharmacies, he said.

The wholesalers/distributors serve as the middleman in getting opioid prescription painkiller medication from the manufacturer to doctors and pharmacies. He said they are only going after the wholesalers because the attorneys believe they are the most at fault for the crisis, not the doctors and pharmacies, by providing them with way more opioid painkillers than normally needed or could be prescribed, and then failing to properly monitor the situation.

Attorney John Lancione said the lawsuit will focus on Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and McKesson Corp., drug wholesalers responsible for the distribution of 85 percent of all opioid painkillers.

“They have flooded our communities with millions of … opiate painkillers, in violation of federal law,” he said.

Lancione said licensed drug wholesalers are required by federal law to look for suspicious orders, investigate and notify the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. He said the abovementioned wholesalers failed to perform those duties over a period of years.

“There should be an appropriate amount of opioids painkillers for people who need them,” but the wholesalers were filling orders for millions of opioids in excess of what needs to be prescribed, he said.

While the focus of the county’s lawsuit will be the distributors, other lawsuits by government agencies, including the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, have been filed against opioid drug manufacturers, alleging they downplayed the addictive power of these painkillers to doctors and used deceptive marketing practices.

Some have compared the coming flood of civil lawsuits against a single industry to the tobacco lawsuits of the 1990s filed against tobacco companies by attorney generals from 46 states, including Ohio. Tobacco companies have paid out more than $140 billion to states since then, but only $500 million went to smoking prevention.

Halleck had no idea how much the county could receive if it wins or how the money would be spent. “I think we’re talking years down the road. There’s a lot of time to talk about the whats and ifs,” he said.

When asked if others might view this as a money grab on their part, Halleck said that was one of his concerns, but commissioners have a larger responsibility because of the financial strain the opioid crisis has placed on local law enforcement, the criminal justice system and public treatment programs.

“I initially looked at that because I didn’t like that,” he said. “But as a public official that represents a county with a terrible opioid problem … I look at the other counties that are involved and I don’t think it would be prudent for us not to be.”

A lawsuit is expected to be filed within a month in federal district court in Cleveland. The law firm is working on a contingency basis, and it fee is 30 percent of any settlement or judgment.

“At the end of the day it isn’t costing the county anything, and we’ll see how it turns out,” Halleck said.