Rock County is one of 28 counties hoping to win money in a federal lawsuit against manufacturers of opioid pain medications.
The lawsuit filed Tuesday in the Eastern District of Wisconsin alleges certain drug companies engaged in “nefarious and deceptive” marketing that caused the nation’s opioid overdose epidemic.
The Rock County Board voted by acclamation Oct. 12 to join the lawsuit.
Board Chairman Russ Podzilni said the law firms representing the counties will pay the costs of the lawsuit, while Rock County’s only cost might be staff time to review documents.
The law firms will not be paid unless the county receives a financial benefit, Podzilni said.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages. It says the counties’ health and law-enforcement services “have been strained to the breaking point” because of the overdose crisis that has claimed thousands of lives.
Rock County hospitals encountered opioid poisoning 102 times between 2012 and 2014, but that skyrocketed to 988 in 2016, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also states at least 68 people died of opiate overdoses in Rock County between 2013 and 2015, while 33 died in 2016 alone.
More than two dozen states, cities and counties have filed similar lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies, accusing them of making false claims about the dangers of their drugs to make a profit.
The Rock County Board resolution says the county has spent millions of dollars in unexpected and unbudgeted time and resources for services related to the opioid epidemic.
Providing those services becomes more costly every year, “yet (the) county’s ability to generate revenue is limited by strict levy limit caps and stagnant or declining state and federal aid,” the resolution states.
The drug companies aimed “to dramatically increase sales by convincing doctors that it was safe and efficacious to prescribe opioids to treat not only the kind of severe and short-term pain associated with surgery or cancer, but also for a seemingly unlimited array of less severe, longer-term pain, such as back pain and arthritis to name but two examples,” the lawsuit says.
Drug companies knew their “products were addictive, subject to abuse, and not safe or efficacious for long-term use,” the lawsuit says. It names Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Endo Health Solutions and subsidiaries of the companies. Three doctors in California and Utah also are listed.
“We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense,” Purdue Pharma said in a statement that also said the company is “deeply troubled by the opioid crisis and we are dedicated to being part of the solution.”
Endo Health Solutions said in a statement its “top priorities include patient safety and ensuring that patients with chronic pain have access to safe and effective therapeutic options” while preventing opioid abuse. It said it couldn’t comment further on pending litigation.
Johnson & Johnson said in a statement it had not yet received the counties’ complaint but that the allegations in similar lawsuits are “legally and factually unfounded.”
“Responsibly used opioid-based pain medicines give doctors and patients important choices to help manage the debilitating effects of chronic pain,” the company’s statement said. “At the same time, we recognize opioid abuse and addiction is a serious public health issue that must be addressed.”
Easy access to the drugs led to addictions, which in turn led to heroin use for many who found the street drug cheaper and easier to procure, police and health authorities have said in recent years.
More than 52,000 Americans died in 2015 from drug overdoses, most of them involving prescription opioids or related illicit drugs such as fentanyl and heroin, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Wisconsin, 1,824 people died from opioid overdoses from 2013 to 2015, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit describes a huge marketing campaign that aimed to convince doctors the drugs were safe.
“As a result, Rock County doctors began prescribing opioids long term to treat chronic pain—something that most never would have considered prior to the defendants’ campaign,” the lawsuit states.
Podzilni said it was important for Rock County to join the lawsuit because of what happened with a similar lawsuit against tobacco companies around the turn of the century.
The state told counties at the time that the state would file the lawsuit and share the proceeds, Podzilni said, but the counties got nothing.
“We didn’t have a seat at the table, and we got screwed,” Podzilni said.
“Now we have a seat at the table, so anything that might come from this would come to the counties that back this,” he added.
It was important to file the lawsuit now because the state could have started its own lawsuit, freezing the counties out, Podzilni said.
There’s still time for other counties to join the lawsuit, Podzilni said.
Neighboring Green and Jefferson counties have joined the suit, but Dane and Walworth have not, according to a news release from one of the law firms representing the counties, Crueger Dickinson of Whitefish Bay.
Also on the counties’ side is the high-powered firm of Simmons Hanly Conroy of New York and Illinois.
State Attorney General Brad Schimel announced in June that his office was working with attorneys general around the country “in an ongoing investigation to evaluate whether pharmaceutical manufacturers have engaged in unlawful practices in the marketing and sale of opioids ... to determine the appropriate course of legal action to address the ongoing opioid epidemic.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.