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County looks into costs of opioid addiction to local government
County hopes for compensation for treatment and incarceration of people addicted to prescription painkillers
FARMINGTON — Each year local governments spend money on incarceration and emergency room visits for people who are addicted to opioid painkillers.
San Juan County is hoping to receive money from pharmaceutical companies to compensate it for what it has spent on treatment and incarceration of people addicted to their products.
The County Commission unanimously approved hiring lawyers to investigate how much money the opioid epidemic has cost the county. It will likely file a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies alleging the companies falsely advertised the products and did not disclose the addictive nature of the drugs.
“It’s not for the people who got addicted,” said County Attorney Doug Echols. “It’s for the injuries we sustained because of addicted people in our community.”
Echols said opioid manufacturers used television advertisements to market their products and misrepresented the addictive nature of the drugs to both doctors and patients.
More than 200 people visited the emergency room in San Juan County due to overdosing on opioid prescription medication between 2010 and 2014, according to data the New Mexico Department of Health.
In 2016, there were 107 drug overdose deaths in San Juan County, according to data from the New Mexico Department of Health. The data does not provide information about what drugs led to the overdose deaths.
According to the state department of health, 53 percent of overdose deaths between 2010 and 2014 were caused by opioid painkillers such as methadone, oxycodone and morphine.
San Juan County will be following in the footsteps of governments across the country that have been filing lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies. New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas filed a lawsuit in 2017 against major pharmaceutical companies.
The Navajo Nation filed a lawsuit against five manufacturers, three distributors and three pharmacies on April 11.
The tribe's complaint describes how companies created a market for opioids, causing overdose deaths, Navajo children being placed in the custody of non-Native Americans and financial losses.
The case has been transferred from the U.S. District Court in New Mexico to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio for consolidation with lawsuits filed by cities and counties across the country, according to court documents.
The group of lawyers that the county is contracting with is representing hundreds of different entities in opioid litigation, Echols said.
Echols said he thinks the litigation is valid and there has already been at least one settlement in the opioid lawsuits.
Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, settled a lawsuit in 2015 for $24 million. The lawsuit was filed in 2007 by Kentucky and accused Purdue of marketing the drug as safe. The pharmaceutical company had designed the drug to be released slowly, but addicts began crushing the pills so the drug would be released quicker.
“If we’re going to participate, we ought to participate sooner rather than later,” Echols said.
Reporter Noel Lyn Smith contributed to this story.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at email@example.com.