ROUND ROCK — Williamson County, like a growing number of Texas counties, has filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma and other drug makers, as well as pharmacies, for helping to fuel the opioid crisis.
The lawsuit accuses the companies of deceptive marketing, sales and distribution of prescription opioids such as Oxycontin that have caused “addiction, criminal activity and loss of life.” The state of Texas and about 40 other Texas counties, including Travis, Harris and Dallas, have already sued Purdue Pharma in federal court.
The Connecticut-based firm did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Several states have also sued the drug company. Purdue Pharma agreed in March to pay the state of Oklahoma $270 million for damages caused by opioids.
In the federal lawsuit, a judge in Cleveland is expected to weigh a proposal Tuesday to allow every city, town and county in the United States to receive a payout in a settlement with the largest makers, distributors and retailers of prescription opioids as a speedy way to settle lawsuits. On Monday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asked Judge Dan Aaron Polster to delay a ruling, saying it could “potentially result in class-action abuse and confusion.”
“To certify a negotiation class so quickly and so early in the process, before everyone’s had a chance to determine what their best interest is, constitutes a new and novel procedure that could result in a grave miscarriage of justice and do significant harm to the ability of states to protect their own people,” Paxton wrote in a letter co-authored with the California attorney general.
Other companies named in the Williamson County lawsuit include Johnson & Johnson, Abbott Laboratories, Janssen Pharmaceutica, CVS pharmacies and Walgreens.
Williamson County cannot comment about its lawsuit because it is pending litigation, said spokeswoman Connie Odom. The lawsuit, filed June 14 in a Williamson County district court, says the county “has spent and continues to spend large sums combating the public health crisis created by defendants’ negligence and fraudulent marketing campaigns.”
“For example, scores of prescriptions were written for opioids in Williamson County from 2006-2016. Many overdoses, deaths, hospital admissions and public safety offenses related to opioids occurred in this time period in and about Williamson County.”
No figures are provided in the lawsuit for the number of overdoses, deaths, hospital admissions or public safety offenses involving opioids during the time period it cites. The document also does not provide the cost of dealing with the crisis, but the county is seeking between $1 million and $100 million in damages.
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Officials said Williamson County does not keep track of deaths from drug overdoses because it does not have a medical examiner, but according to the latest figures available from the Texas Department of State Health Services, 12 people in the county died from overdoses from commonly prescribed opioids and synthetic opioids including fentanyl in 2015.
Williamson County EMS took 444 patients to hospitals in 2018 who paramedics thought had an “opioid-related disorder” or “poisoning/drug ingestion,” Odom said. Fifty of the 444 patients received Narcan, the drug used to reverse the effects of opioids, she said. Not all patients hospitalized for opioid-related causes need Narcan, she said.
In 2018, the Round Rock Fire Department received a $1.5 million federal grant distributed by the state to more efficiently and effectively help in opioid-related calls. Half of the grant was for providing naloxone, also known as Narcan, to all police and fire departments in Williamson County. The other half of the grant was used for several purposes, including providing personnel from the county’s mobile outreach team to be stationed at a Round Rock fire station. Members of the team assist in drug-related emergency calls.
Annie Burwell, the team’s director, said the team now has 82 patients, most of them from Round Rock, that it is following up on to make sure they get the right kind of health care after they overdosed. She said the patients’ average age is 35.
Joseph Gorordo, the vice president of outreach for a private treatment center in Austin called Recovery Unplugged, said it has seen a rising trend of treating Williamson County patients for substance abuse, including opioids. He said the center often treats college-age athletes from Williamson County who got hooked on opioids so they could play through their pain, he said. The other most frequent age group at the center from Williamson County, Gorordo said, is retirement-age adults who started taking opioids for shoulder or back injuries.
“We’ve seen more admissions from Cedar Park and Leander this year than last year,” he said. Twenty years ago, he said, only people with the most severe illnesses, including cancer, were given opioids.
“Now because of misinformation by pharmacy companies, you can get these drugs for a migraine,” he said. “I had a client and both he and his brother took turns dropping bowling balls on their feet so they could go into the (emergency room) and get opioids when just 20 years ago they might have been given muscle relaxers or a high dose of Tylenol.”
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