Class-action suit over opioids in works by Chatham County

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A class-action lawsuit being prepared for Chatham County is likely to ask for millions of dollars in damages, according to Casey Hilliard, a county health policy analyst. 

Hilliard, who helped with determining a figure using publicly available research, declined to give a more specific amount.

Still unknown are the targets of the lawsuit, but unlike some other similar lawsuits, Chatham’s will name both manufacturers and distributors of the substance. Gary Whitaker, a Winston-Salem based attorney, part of a team representing Chatham, declined to name any of the parties they intended to sue.

But he did say the list of manufactures was “fixed,” whereas the list of distributors was based upon who was operating in the area at the time. 

The Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to give the green light to pursue the suit during their May 20 meeting. 

“Rather than stand on the sidelines, we are seizing the opportunity to lead a class-action fight against the opioid crisis as we combat the personal devastation we see right here in our community,” BOC chairman Mike Dasher said in a news release.

County spokesperson Debra Henzey said the suit is an attempt to recoup some of the costs of dealing with problem. 

“(The opioid problem) affects the court system, it affects social services, it affects mental health services, which provides substance abuse treatment,” she said. “For us to do real prevention work, [it] is expensive.”

 

Scroll over for information on opioid-related issues in each county/Map by Ari Sen

If similar lawsuits are any indication, Purdue Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturer of the highly addictive drug OxyContin, could in Chatham’s crosshairs. The drug, which is chemically similar to heroin, was marketed heavily as safe and effective in the 1990s, causing many to point to it as a leading cause of the opioid epidemic. 

At least 42 states and more than 1,600 municipalities are suing opioid manufacturers. According to data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Chatham dispensed over 2.4 million opioid pills last year for a population of just over 71,000 people. (View our analysis here.)

This is not the first time the commissioners have taken action on opioids. In November 2017, they voted to declare the substances a public nuisance, a legal strategy now being evoked in a first-of-its-kind lawsuit in Oklahoma against two opioid manufacturers. 

Despite claims of “personal devastation,” Chatham seems to have, in some ways, suffered less from the crisis compared to neighbors. According to a rough analysis of data obtained from the N.C. DHHS, Chatham reported fewer emergency room visits for opioid overdoses last year than all neighboring counties. 

The same holds true for counties of similar size; Chatham had at least 17 reported overdoses last year as compared to Carteret with 57, Wilkes with 69 and Surry with 115. 

The death rates present a more mixed picture: While Chatham reported fewer unintended deaths related to opioids last year compared to counties of a similar size (seven compared to 10 in Surry and 11 in Carteret and Wilkes),  Chatham’s neighbors to the south, Lee and Moore counties, reported fewer deaths (three each). 

But Hilliard said the data can sometimes be unreliable because of a long lag time in reporting and suggested there may have be more than seven deaths in the county last year. 

The overdose treatment data is also difficult to evaluate because DHHS suppresses all numbers between one and four for each quarter, meaning a community could have anywhere between four and 16 instances of someone being treated in an emergency room for an overdose – but it would impossible to tell exactly how many. 

When asked whether the suppression was required by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a spokesperson a DHHS declined to say specifically, saying only that the data was suppressed “because it needed to be.” 

Despite the problem not being as large numerically as in some other communities, Hilliard said it is of great importance to all the people affected by it. 

The release cites statistics showing six out of every 1,000 babies born alive in the county suffer from drug withdrawal syndrome. The release also cites DHHS stats showing more than 76% of Chatham’s children in foster care are there because of parental substance abuse.

Despite the mixed numbers, county leaders seem to be taking the problem seriously. 

In 2016, the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office adopted a plan for their officers to carry Naloxone, a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdoses, and received training from the Chatham Health Department on how to use the medication. 

In 2017, the state health director also issued an order allowing for the medicine to be dispensed without a prescription at six pharmacies in Chatham.

The county also has led educational efforts for students and community members through such initiatives as the Chatham Drug-Free Coalition and a series of forum events, titled “It Started With A Script: Prescription Drug Misuse, Addiction, and the Opioid Crisis”, in libraries across the county.  


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