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Should county sue Big Pharma for opioids’ toll?

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HUDSON–An offer to sue opioid suppliers on behalf of the county and the prospects for a new school mental health clinic highlighted last month’s Columbia County Board of Supervisors Health and Human Services Committee meeting.

Lawyer Sarah Burns of the firm of Simmons Hanly Conroy came to talk about the possibility of Columbia County suing opioid suppliers. She said other counties in the state taking similar action.

Supervisor William Hughes (D-Hudson, 4th Ward) told the meeting, “We’ve had a lot of lives lost in Columbia and Greene counties in the past year” because of opioid use. “Opioids destroy families,” he said, adding that “the opioid abuse problem touches every other issue.”

Simmons Hanly Conroy, a national law firm, has been in opioid litigation for about 15 years, Ms. Burns said. She said that if Columbia County sues and uses Simmons Hanly, “we would front the costs” and would charge only “if there’s a recovery.” She indicated that this charge, mostly a percent of the winnings, would depend on the retainer.

The committee chairman, Supervisor Patrick Grattan (R-Kinderhook), asked Ms. Burns to draft a retainer agreement for the committee to study at next month’s meeting.

“How would this lawsuit trickle down to victims of opioid addiction?” asked a member of the meeting audience.

“The better people to answer this question are those sitting at this table,” Ms. Burns replied, referring the supervisors on the committee. “Where do you want to go? What do you want to do with the money?” she asked the supervisors.

The prospect of Columbia County receiving “additional money that doesn’t come from the taxpayers” is attractive, Mr. Hughes said, but, “We need to talk to the addicts as to what they want.”

Ms. Burns recounted her firm’s entry into “suing Big Pharma. We started with Oxycontin. When we first filed, we thought it would be slow moving. It’s not.” Defendants have included Purdue, Johnson & Johnson, and four physicians who–as pain management specialists–“acted as spokespersons on the international stage” for certain drugs. In 2015, an eight-year case where the firm represented the state of Kentucky against Purdue settled for over $24 million, according to summaries in a Google search. Other plaintiffs have come from Mississippi, Ohio and Chicago.

She said that two years ago her firm was approached by Suffolk County “about filing against opioid manufacturers.” Since then other counties in this state have also sued, and “Suffolk will be before the judge this summer,” Ms. Burns said.

Asked whether there would be one lawsuit for all of New York State, Ms. Burns said she had spoken New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, whom she said “wasn’t interested, so now we’re doing it county by county.”

Ms. Burns said unbranded advertisements to doctors advised them that certain opioids would not cause addiction and that the drugs were safe. “It was exactly like tobacco,” she said.

Mr. Hughes spoke of pressure in the recent past on doctors “to prescribe more pain medication to more people.”

Supervisor Richard Keaveny (R-Canaan) recounted seeing a “pharmacist in Chatham on the phone with a client asking, ‘Do you know this is an opioid?’ The pharmacist was doing her homework.”

Also at the June 20 committee meeting Michael Cole, county director of community services, reported that a school district had requested the county open a new satellite mental health clinics in its schools, like the ones already operating in some other school districts. The request was for the new clinics to operate two-and-a-half days a week in a high school and half-a-day a week in an elementary school.

Staff for the requested clinics would come from current county employees, so the county would incur no additional employment costs, Mr. Cole indicated. Financially, with such clinics, “it is very easy to break even, and we have broken even in other situations,” he said.

The county already includes mental health services at a clinic in a building about a quarter mile away from the requesting district’s high school. The county rents its space in that building for $2,800 a month.

Discussions arose as to whether having two clinics so close to each other makes sense, whether students would leave class to go to the clinic or visit it after school hours, how many people would use a new in-school clinic who are already using the nearby clinic, and whether the new clinic would bring the county new mental health clients.

Mr. Hughes observed that adults are given the responsibility of going to mental health facilities on their own. But, he said, “It is easier to bring the service to youths rather than youths to the service.”

Mr. Hughes also reminded those present that to give people who need mental health services “access to it in a place where they will not be stigmatized should be our ultimate goal.”

The committee decided to consider information on its existing in-school clinics, as well as what the proposed new location says is evidence that there is demand for an on-site clinic, before deciding how to proceed.

The next meeting of the Columbia County Board of Supervisors Health and Human Services Committee will take place Tuesday, July 18, at 4 p.m. at 401 State Street.

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