Augusta’s lawsuit seeking compensation for damages from the nation’s opioid epidemic will go after the distribution chain responsible under federal law for monitoring distribution of the dangerous painkillers, the lead attorney in the suit said.
Mayor Hardie Davis announced Thursday that Augusta has filed suit against five of the largest manufacturers of opioids and the country’s three largest wholesale drug distributors, saying the firms “failed in their legal obligation to notify the Drug Enforcement Administration of suspicious orders, even as the number of pills flowing into our county rose and rose.”
The suit is not yet filed, said Burton LeBlanc, attorney with Dallas-based Baron and Budd, the lead of 10 law firms including Augusta-based Enoch Tarver retained by the Augusta Commission on Tuesday in the case. Once it’s drafted, the attorneys plan to file the suit in federal district court in Augusta, LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc, whose firm is representing nearly 185 cities and counties around the U.S., said Augusta’s suit will likely target opioid manufacturer Perdue Pharma along with distributors McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen, which account for 85 percent of the drug distribution market.
Opioids include drugs such as morphine, hydrocodone, fentanyl and methadone used pharmaceutically, as well as the illicit U-47700, manufactured fentanyl variants and heroin. Coroner Mark Bowen estimated overdoses on opioids have killed about 20 people annually in recent years in Augusta.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics showing opioid prescribing rates in Augusta are above the national average of 66.5 per 100 people. In 2016, the rate was 86.8 prescriptions per 100 people in Augusta while in neighboring Columbia County, the 2016 rate was 81 prescriptions per 100 people.
District Attorney Natalie Paine said last week that opioids “do not discriminate” and have “claimed the lives of people who would otherwise probably have never been a drug addict if they hadn’t begun taking legal, prescribed medication.”
Davis and other city officials did not respond to requests for comment after issuing the announcement Thursday. Augusta Commissioner Ben Hasan said he hopes the city will unite to compile the needed information to make a good case.
“The facts are there; it’s just the entities speaking together and compiling the data,” Hasan said.
One data set will likely be the DEA Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System, or ARCOS, data, a confidential record of the number of pills distributed that gives “a very precise picture of the number of pills by milligram and where it went by ZIP code,” LeBlanc said. “That information will tell the story.”
Under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, wholesale distributors gained the exclusive responsibility to distribute Schedule 2 narcotics throughout the country and a duty they can’t delegate to report suspicious drug orders and prevent inappropriate diversion of the pills, LeBlanc said.
The national trade association representing drug distributors said the firms aren’t “willing to be scapegoats” for the opioid crisis.
“We don’t make medicines, market medicines, prescribe medicines or dispense them to consumers,” said John Parker, senior vice president of the Healthcare Distribution Alliance.
Damages Augusta will seek may cover the added cost of law enforcement, medical care and treatment for addiction, emergency medical care for overdoses and other expenses resulting from opioid abuse, LeBlanc said.
The case may take from three to five years to resolve, or possibly sooner due to political and other factors, he said.
The agreement approved by the commission Tuesday gives the law firms 30 percent of gross damages awarded plus expenses, up to 50 percent of damages.