Louisa County does not have the worst statistics when it comes to the opioid problem, but it is hardly immune. Emergency workers answered more than 60 calls in the county over the past year for people who had overdosed on drugs. The actual numbers are likely to be higher, since not everyone calls 911. Four people died in the county in 2017 from drug use, two of them from prescription opioids.
A group of attorneys approached the Louisa County Board of Supervisors at a May 21 meeting to invite the county to participate in a lawsuit against drug manufacturers and distributors. The attorneys, who are based in Missouri, Alabama and Southwest Virginia, are acting as part of a wave of suits filed in recent months in local and federal courts. Some lawyers have also sued pharmacy benefit managers such as Express Scripts and CVS Health.
There is no upfront cost for the county if it joins the lawsuit. If the attorneys are successful, they would claim 25 percent of the winnings as their fee. Expenses related to the legal action would also be deducted from the county’s share. The more counties that participate in the lawsuit, the lower the expenses would be for each county involved. The county could also be liable for its share of costs if a lawsuit fails.
The supervisors took no action on the matter this month but said they would consult with County Attorney Sandra Robinson.
Some supervisors are skeptical of the rationale for targeting drug makers and distributors, since there are other parties that could also be held responsible, such as health insurance companies and the prescribers themselves.
“There’s a major distributor in this county — the doctors,” Supervisor Willie Gentry (Cuckoo district) said.
The number of prescriptions for opioids issued in Louisa County in 2016 was 49.8 per 100 residents, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control. In some Virginia counties, several hundred prescriptions were issued per 100 residents in a recent year.
Joey Dumas, the Mobile, Alabama attorney who joined colleagues from Missouri and Abingdon, Virginia at the supervisors’ meeting, said his group is “going after the head of the monster” by targeting drug manufacturers.
The attorneys believe drug makers have failed to properly label their products to inform doctors and patients of the dangers of overuse of prescription opioids. As for distributors such as AmerisourceBergen and McKesson, the lawyers say these and other companies have not reported suspiciously large orders for pharmaceuticals to law enforcement. These orders often do not match well with the areas where they are sold.
“Manufacturers profit the most — the more sold, the better,” Eric Barton, an attorney for Wagstaff and Cartmell, the Missouri-based law firm, said. “The [distributors] are only allowed to market as the label allows, but they’ve marketed much more broadly. Nobody’s ever stopped them.”
The attorneys present at the supervisors’ meeting included Helen Phillips, who is based in Abingdon but provides legal services to Central Virginia Regional Jail in Orange. Louisa County sends people it arrests to the jail, including a significant number locked up either for drug offenses or related crimes such as larceny.
Supervisor Troy Wade (Louisa district) is chairman of the jail authority. He said that group talks frequently about the role of opioids in the jail’s escalating costs in recent years.
It’s not just law enforcement, the jail and the courts where the effects are felt. Drugs have dislocated multiple families in the county.
“We can definitely say we have been impacted,” Janice Allen, who directs Louisa County’s department of human services, said. Her staff has seen a rise in the number of families affected in various ways, including, in some cases, infants exposed to opioids.
Barton and Dumas said 500 counties nationally have joined legal actions against drug manufacturers and distributors since 2017. Several Southwest Virginia counties did so earlier this year. Louisa is the first county in Central Virginia contacted by the lawyers, Barton said. His group’s strategy is to find a set of localities in the region to group together as part of a single lawsuit.