‘We’re serious:’ How a county drug lawsuit could ‘save a life’

A nurse fills bottles with small amounts of liquid methadone for take-home prescriptions at a clinic in the Community Health Center in Akron, Ohio, Dec. 18, 2017.
A nurse fills bottles with small amounts of liquid methadone for take-home prescriptions at a clinic in the Community Health Center in Akron, Ohio, Dec. 18, 2017. NYT

Horry County plans on suing major pharmaceutical companies in an attempt to stem the flow of opioids into the county and recover money spent fighting the epidemic.

“If we can stem the tide of the influx and the quantities of the opioids that are being provided to end users, hopefully that will save somebody’s life, or prevent a death, prevent an overdose,” said county attorney Arrigo Carotti. “That of course is the ultimate goal of the litigation.”

The county plans on joining in mass litigation against the same drug distributors as Marion County using the same attorneys representing Marion County in its lawsuit, Carotti said. Those attorneys are Birmingham, Alabama-based DeGaris and Rogers and Columbia-based Whetstone Perkins and Fulda.

“This is all transferred to one court in Cleveland, Ohio,” Carotti said. “There are going to be dozens of lawsuits that are going to be handled together, at least initially.”

Charles Whetstone of Whetstone Perkins and Fulda said in the case of many similar lawsuits against the same defendants, the court cases can all be funneled to the same court in order to get consistent rulings for all parties involved.

“Our primary goal is to slow down the entry of these things into the county,” he said.

The Marion County suit was filed in January and blames the epidemic of opioid overdose deaths on drug companies including Cardinal Health, Amerisourcebergen Drug Corporation and McKesson Corporation, which, according to the suit, ignored “unlawfully filled suspicious orders” of opioids to the area.

That suit says the large shipments from the three biggest drug companies in the U.S. “directly and proximately” caused the opioid problem and resulted in “widespread morbidity and mortality.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2016 there were 115 opioid prescriptions doled out for every 100 people in Marion County. In Horry, there were 110 prescriptions per 100 people.

“The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 basically put the liability on the distributors to pay attention to where the opioids were being distributed,” said Annesley DeGaris of DeGaris and Rogers. “There’s numerous instances where the distributors didn’t follow their duty under the controlled substances act.”

Carotti said the county hopes to stop the flow of drugs into the county as well as recover money spent battling the epidemic.

“Damages is a main component of the litigation but we’re hoping that we might be able to stem the tide of the flow of opioids that the manufactures are putting into the market place,” said Carotti, adding that the county hopes to have more control of opioids entering the area after negotiations with drug companies.

County Council Chair Mark Lazarus said that there would be other counties joining Horry and Marion using the same law firm, but that “hundreds” of other law firms would file similar suits nationwide.

“It brings the stress level to these pharmaceutical companies that we’re serious,” he said. “That this nation is fed up.”

Whetstone said he hoped the suit would be filed by the end of the week.

John Parker, Senior Vice President of trade association Healthcare Distribution Alliance, which represent the companies named in the suit, said in a press release that opioid abuse is complex challenge.

“Given our role, the idea that distributors are responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and is regulated,” he said. “Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation.”

The cost

The highly-addictive opioids come at a cost, both human and monetary.

“There are people who have been become addicted to pain medication,” said Horry County Coroner Robert Edge, who added that those patients turned to illegal methods of getting their fix when doctors started cutting back on the amount of opioids they prescribe.

“They’re finding that heroin is easier to get and cheaper to buy,” Edge said.

According to Edge, there were 88 deaths in Horry County from opioid drug overdoses in 2016, when the county led the state in overdose deaths. In 2017, he said, there were 48, although there are other deaths that are still pending so that number could rise.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control says there were 101 deaths in Horry County in 2016, but Edge said difference between county and DHEC numbers may be due to suicides by pills that are recorded differently at the county and state level.

Either way, overdose deaths aren’t going anywhere.

“I wouldn’t say they’re on the rise, but they’re not falling either,” Edge said. “I’d say they’re running pretty status quo.”

Although 15th Judicial Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson couldn’t say exactly how much the drug problem has cost, he said that the epidemic was taking a larger bite out of public safety.

“I’ve got four prosecutors that deal with just drug cases,” Richardson said. “Obviously the impact is felt more so at the police level and I can tell you certainly at the police level they haven’t got any more help from county or anywhere.”

The issue isn’t that the county has never had drug users, but that the users’ drug of choice had changed. The demand has led to more property crime in the hope of funding users’ habits.

“Our problem, back before recently, was coke and crack cocaine,” he said. “That’s a different stimulant. People could binge on that. They didn’t have to do crack and coke every day.”

Opioids are different.

“Those guys have to take every day, those that are addicted to heroin or pills,” he said. “That money has to come from somewhere.”

Christian Boschult: 843-626-0218, @TSN_Christian