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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County may join legal action against companies that make prescription painkillers

FILE – This Feb. 19, 2013 file photo shows OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vermont. (Toby Talbot / AP)
By Rachel Alexander and Amy Edelen The Spokesman-Review

Spokane County is considering joining a nationwide lawsuit against prescription opioid manufacturers alleging the companies knowingly lied about the addictive potential of the powerful painkillers.

The county commission will consider a resolution to join the suit at its Tuesday meeting.

County Commissioner Al French said any funds gained by the county from a potential settlement of the case would go toward offsetting drug treatment costs.

“In our minds, it was clear that those that have helped perpetuate this community problem should be held accountable and should help pay for some of the treatment that we are having to overtake,” French said. “Right now, the cost of this epidemic is being paid by taxpayers.”

The city of Tacoma filed suit against manufacturers including Purdue Pharma, the maker of Oxycontin, last September. The suit alleged manufacturers systematically lied to doctors and patients through a “well funded marketing and advertising scheme …despite knowing that there was little to no evidence to support their claims.”

That suit was consolidated with other pending lawsuits against drug manufacturers and sent to a single federal court, the Northern District of Ohio.

The Spokane Regional Health District spends about $5 million per year on opioid treatment through its medication-assisted program. It currently treats 960 patients, the bulk of whom have insurance through Medicaid.

District health officer Dr. Bob Lutz said he was supportive of the suit, which he likened to the effort of states to sue tobacco companies in the 1990s to recoup health spending costs associated with smoking-related illness.

“They misrepresented their data for years and led providers to believe that these medications were safe and appropriate to prescribe,” he said.

In particular, he said opioid manufacturers told doctors there was no risk of addiction to prescription opioids and pushed the idea that appropriate pain management for patients meant prescribing narcotic painkillers in most situations, even where other treatment might have been more beneficial.

“We were misled to the point where we created a problem that now we’re having to clean up,” Lutz said.

Other local officials have pointed to indirect costs from drug addiction, including increased property crime, homelessness and spending on other social programs.

Marian Wilson, a nursing professor and researcher at Washington State University who studies opioid addiction and pain management, said many of the patients she’s talked to reported being misled about opioid treatment.

“Some of the issues our participants reported were not being told opioids could be addictive, not being given non-opioid alternatives, and receiving much higher strength medicines than they felt was needed. High dose, long-term opioids were given after C-sections, accidents, and minor infections,” she wrote in an email.

French said the county met with Seattle-based law firm Keller Rohrback, which filed the Tacoma suit, and other Washington counties that have joined in.

“There would be multiple agencies that would benefit from any settlement we would get,” he said. “We’re led to believe there’s energy to settle then we’ll start spending money on therapy to help get people out of this horrible lifestyle of addiction.”