Olmsted County joins efforts to sue opioid makers
Olmsted County added its name to a growing list of counties preparing to sue pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors of prescription opioids.
"It's one thing we can do to join our voice with others across the nation," Olmsted County Commissioner Sheila Kiscaden said after the county board voted 5-2 to authorize the legal action.
County Attorney Mark Ostrem said the planned lawsuit aims to address the aftermath of a flood of opioids in the community that has increases costs for the county, from the rising expense of treatment to added services provided to families in the wake of addiction.
"It's a huge impact on our community from that perspective," he said, noting it stretches across many county services and costs continue to rise.
The lawsuit, he said, seeks to put some of those costs at the feet of the companies that helped contribute to the problem.
Ostrem said the state saw 153 accidental opioid-related deaths in 2016, compared to 97 the year before. While Olmsted County has seen a lower rate than other counties, he said the impact is still felt.
Earlier this year, County Medical Examiner Ross Reichard said local opioid-related deaths spiked at 17 in 2014 and dropped to 11 in each of the next two years.
Kiscaden said the county faces good news and bad news amid the nation's opioid epidemic.
"We're having fewer prescriptions being prescribed than most other places around the state," she said. "We don't have the levels of addiction that the state averages show, yet we know we have a serious problem that needs attention and that will take multiple ways to address."
She said the lawsuit will at least call attention to the issue.
Commissioner Matt Flynn said it sends the wrong message.
"Our society has turned into always blaming someone for someone else's problem," he said.
Citing concerns about the growing impact of opioids, he said undue blame is being put on pharmaceutical companies by a legal system that is driving the lawsuits.
"I think the county is being drawn into a game where we are going to be a pawn in this legal issue for years to come," said Flynn, who was joined by Commissioner Jim Bier in opposing the lawsuit.
At least six other Minnesota counties, including Mower County, are preparing similar lawsuits.
Ostrem said each claim, and potential damages, would depend on the circumstances of individual counties. He said generally two things are being sought: damages for costs connected to the opioid epidemic and funding for costs associated with battling related addiction.
Among expenses covered could be naloxone, the opioid antidote carried by county deputies. Sheriff Kevin Torgerson said deputies have responded to four calls where the drug was used to save a life.
While current kits have been supplied through a grant, he said they could cost $42 per squad car if the grant is discontinued.
Additionally, he has cited costs related to the county's opioid collection site at the front door of the Adult Detention Center, which allows anyone to drop off unwanted opioids for disposal. He told county commissioners that following protocol to dispose of the drugs comes at the expense of staff time.
Ostrem said the county's lawsuit is likely to end up in federal court, which would make it part of consolidated litigation before a single judge. To help handle the litigation, county commissioners backed hiring three law firms — Lockridge Grindal Nauen PLLP, Gustafson Gluek PLLC and JF Henderson Law PLLC.
Ostrem said county staff will assist the outside attorneys gather needed documents to support the case being filed, but the local expense hasn't been determined.
"That's the great unknown," he said.