Tulare County plans to join 30 other counties in class action civil case for medical, criminal costs associated with opioid epidemic


By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

VISALIA – Tulare County will soon join a list of at least 30 California counties suing the largest drug makers and pharmacies for creating a state and national opioid epidemic. 

Tammie Adkins, public information officer for the Tulare County Health & Human Services Agency, said she could not comment on pending litigation but did confirm that Tulare County will be filing a civil complaint against the drug makers and pharmacies.

In May, more than 30 California counties sued the nation’s largest drug manufacturers and pharmacies under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, better known as RICO normally associated with cases against mafia. The lawsuit is being filed under the group name “California Opioid Consortium.”

The 319-page civil action is suing drug makers for “turning patients into drug addicts for their own corporate profit” and pharmacies for failing to refuse and report the suspicious activity involving the drug. The lawsuit alleges charges of public nuisance, racketeering, false and deceptive advertising and marketing, mail and wire fraud, and negligent misrepresentation.

The counties are seeking damages for the medical and criminal costs associated with opioid addiction including overdose deaths, counseling and rehabilitation services, infants born with medical conditions due to opioids and their ongoing care, and additional emergency response and public safety costs due to crime, injury and deaths. 

Adkins said Tulare County would not necessarily be filing as part of the California Opioid Consortium but would be filing its own suit.

“The County will be filing a Complaint on its own behalf,” she said in an email response on June 15. “We anticipate further information as to the filing to be available next week.”

California has been especially ravaged by the national opioid crisis. More people die each year from drug overdoses in California than in any other state. The State’s death rate has continued to climb, increasing by 30 percent from 1999 to 2015, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). In 2016, 1,925 Californians died due to prescription opioids. This number is on par with other recent years: in 2015, 1,966 deaths in California were due just to prescription opioids (not including heroin); in 2014 that number was even higher at 2,024 prescription opioid deaths; and in 2013, 1,934 Californians died from a prescription opioid overdose.

Of the 1,925 opioid-related deaths in California in 2016, fentanyl was a factor in at least 234 of them. This is an increase of 47 percent for 2016. Heroin-related deaths have risen by 67 percent in California since 2006. The high number of deaths are due in part to the extraordinary number of opioids prescribed in the State. Over 23.6 million prescriptions for opioids were written in California in just 2016. 

In 2015, the last year for which information is currently available, California had 3,935 emergency department visits and 4,095 hospitalizations related to prescription opioid overdoses (excluding heroin), according to the California Department of Public Health. The numbers were even higher in 2014, when 4,106 people visited the emergency department according to the California Department of Public Health. The numbers were even higher in 2014, when 4,106 people visited the emergency department and 4,482 people were hospitalized due to prescription opioid abuse. In 2013, there were 3,964 emergency department visits and 4,344 hospitalizations for prescription opioid overdoses. When emergency visits and hospitalizations include heroin, the numbers are even higher.

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), a collection of symptoms newborn babies experience withdrawing from opioid medications taken by the mother, has increased dramatically in California, with the rate of infants born with NAS more than tripling from 2008 to 2013. While the number of affected newborns rose from 1,862 in 2008 to 3,007 in 2014, that number jumped by another 21 percent in 2015. This is despite a steady decline in the overall number of birth in California during that same time.

Reports from California’s Office of Statewide Health Planning, which collects data from licensed health care facilities, have shown a 95 percent increase between 2008 and 2015 of newborns affected by drugs transmitted via placenta or breast milk.

The opioid epidemic has also had an impact on crime in California. Pharmacy robberies have gone up by 163 percent in California over the last two years, according to the DEA. The DEA recorded 90 incidents in 2015, 154 in 2016 and, through mid-November of 2017, that number had climbed to 237. Most perpetrators were stealing prescription opioids. 

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