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Broward, Palm Beach Counties Push Ahead To Sue Big Pharma For Opioid Crisis

Bottles of the prescription painkiller OxyContin (40 mg pills) made by Purdue Pharma L.D. sit on a shelf at a local pharmacy.
Bottles of the prescription painkiller OxyContin (40 mg pills) made by Purdue Pharma L.D. sit on a shelf at a local pharmacy.

Two of Florida’s largest counties, Palm Beach and Broward, have started a process that could take opioid drug makers to court for their roles in the opioid crisis. 

"The dismantling of families, the death and destruction... If someone knew about this, they should pay more than dearly," said Broward County Commissioner Chip LaMarca at the commission meeting on Tuesday. "They should pay financially. They should pay criminally." 

The counties join more  than 100 cities, counties and states across the country that are taking legal action against drug companies. 

"One in 49. [That's] the number of people who are prescribed opioids," said Palm Beach Post investigative reporter Pat Beall. "These are highly addictive drugs. And doctors were prescribing them for a very long time thinking that they weren't addictive."

An estimated 4,000 people died in Florida last year from opioid overdoses. And it costs millions of dollars — money spent on rescue and recovery efforts. 

In May, Gov. Rick Scott declared a public health emergency in Florida and directed government officials to act to curb the opioid epidemic. He has since called for a three-day cap on most opioid prescriptionsand $50 million in funding for treatment and enforcement efforts.

Read more: Sunny Daze, Inside South Florida's Opioid Crisis

During a recent episode of the Florida Roundup, WLRN's Tom Hudson spoke with Pat Beall, along with Sun Sentinel reporter Dan Sweeney and WLRN reporter Peter Haden, about what this decision means for South Florida. Here are some highlights of their conversation.  WLRN: What claims would the counties make if they actually file a lawsuit?

BEALL: I think for [big] pharma and the distributors alike, there's an old political question here, which is what did they know and when did they know it? There's plenty of evidence to suggest they knew a lot and there's plenty of evidence to suggest that they ignored a lot. 

There was a 2007 settlement with Purdue Pharma and the Department of Justice and that actually involved criminal charges. There was a money settlement. It was just one federal district in Virginia. I spoke to Purdue Pharma not too long ago and they said, "Well, you know, that kind of marketing that might have led to the inappropriate overprescription of our Oxycontin,  that was then and this is now.

I think it will be interesting to see exactly what kinds of claims you know they would be looking at, whether civil or criminal.

WLRN: What do Broward commissioners want if they file a lawsuit?

SWEENEY:It’s probably the same as the lawsuit being proposed in Palm Beach County as well. It would look a lot like the old tobacco lawsuits from back in the 1990s. There’s a state law that says if a company harms residents through its product and knew that that product was harmful, then they can be sued to recoup the costs of treating those people. There were big wins against tobacco regarding that law and these drug companies would be sued under the same principle.

WLRN: What do we know about the costs of response and recovery in Palm Beach and Broward counties?

HADEN:Palm Beach County Fire Rescue responded to more than 4,500 overdose calls in 2016. The Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Department estimates that they spent at least at least $1,500 on each of those calls. Just in 2016, more than $6 million [was] spent by the taxpayers for overdose calls.

BEALL: We looked at hospital costs and [it looked like there were] millions of dollars a day in hospital costs related to opioid overdoses and also illnesses that are directly related to injection drugs. The costs were extraordinary. What was also extraordinary: Medicaid was picking up hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in those costs.

WLRN: The Medicaid portion is a key piece because, while those are federal funds that are funneled through the state, the state is the responsible agency. So where is the state of Florida and Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office in regards to opioid manufacturers?

BEALL: Bondi is part of a working group of state attorneys who are looking at the issue and they've subpoenaed no information. They might be laying groundwork, but ,you know, nothing formal yet.

WLRN: What are the lessons from the pill mill crackdown of a decade ago?

SWEENEY:The crackdown took a statewide effort and state laws were passed to provide a blanket regulation across this state. It's different here [because] you're seeing individual counties filing lawsuits to try to address the problem, which tells you that despite the fact that Pam Bondi is involved in these multi-state talks with other state attorneys general, a lot of the counties here are thinking that this is just not moving along quickly enough. 

WLRN: What has been some of the response of the the legitimate operators in the recovery business?

HADEN:They were very concerned. The biggest flag bearers of the effort to root out corruption within the recovery community are the good providers — the people who are legitimately trying to get people off of these drugs and keep them clean. They're the ones that really get a black eye from the media coverage of the corruption that goes on in the recovery industry. They certainly want the corruption cleaned up.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Bridget O'Brien produces WLRN's The Florida Roundup as well as morning newscasts. A long-time public radio geek, she feels that audio journalism can take a story beyond text and allows listeners to truly connect through the power of voice. With a background in drama, she brings a theatrical element to everything she does.