Las Vegas Sun

December 15, 2017

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Clark County to file opioid lawsuit against big pharma

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Toby Talbot/AP

Hydrocodone-acetaminophen pills, also known as Vicodin, are arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. The state of Nevada is completing a need assessment to receive a $5.6 million federal grant to combat opioid abuse.

Clark County commissioners voted unanimously today to sue major pharmaceutical companies for their role in creating the opioid epidemic.

District Attorney Steve Wolfson will work with Las Vegas-based law firm Eglet Prince on the lawsuit, which seeks to recover costs the county has incurred related to opioid addiction, including medical treatment, investigating and prosecuting crimes committed by addicts, and educational and rehabilitation efforts. Commissioners oversee Metro Police, University Medical Center, the Southern Nevada Health District and social service entities, all of which have all felt the impacts of increased opioid abuse.

More than 100 jurisdictions across the country have filed similar lawsuits, and legal actions at the federal level are being consolidated.

Robert Eglet, senior partner at Eglet Prince, told commissioners the county would see a larger potential financial settlement, have more control over how a settlement would be spent and see more favorable court conditions by keeping its action at the state level and not joining an existing lawsuit.

He referenced the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement reached by 46 states in 1998. Nevada, which participated in that agreement, received $1.2 billion. The four states that did not participate filed individual lawsuits and received significantly more — about $40 billion combined.

“Don’t wait around for whatever crumbs fall our way, like in the tobacco case,” Eglet said.

Money from the tobacco settlement was used to fund the Millennium Scholarship, which assists high school graduates with in-state college tuition.

Money from an opioid lawsuit likely wouldn’t be received for years, which means the majority of commissioners would be termed out and no longer serving on the board. But Chairman Steve Sisolak said he hoped any money received would be used to fund health care efforts at UMC.

“I believe this will be a blessing,” Commissioner Lawrence Weekly said. “It’s our job today to make sure we put the infrastructure in place, so when future commissioners are going through the record, they have a blueprint to work off of.”

Wolfson said the lawsuit would also seek corrective orders that could potentially change how prescription drugs are distributed and how doctors prescribe them — measures that could keep additional people from becoming addicts.

Nationally, 91 people die each day from an opioid overdose.

“This is a health epidemic,” Sisolak said. “People are dying every day.”

The lawsuit is not expected to conflict with any ongoing efforts by the state Attorney General’s Office, which is investigating deceptive trade practices related to drug manufacturers and distributors.

Prescription opioids like hydrocodone (e.g. Vicodin and Loratab) and oxycodone (e.g. OxyContin and Percocet) are credited with a rise in heroin use. Sales of these painkillers has skyrocketed 400 percent since 1999. Some 80 percent of all new heroin users took prescription opioids first.

In Clark County, opioid use and misuse were associated with more than 1,500 emergency room visits and more than 1,700 hospitalizations in 2013. This medical treatment resulted in $9.3 million in emergency room costs and $92.5 million in inpatient health care costs.