McHenry County sues drugmakers over opioid epidemic

Joins 4 other Illinois counties to try to recoup costs

WHEATON – McHenry County is one of five suburban counties in Illinois that joined a growing trend across the U.S. to sue the biggest pharmaceutical manufacturers to try to recoup costs of battling an epidemic of opioid addiction.

Attorneys for McHenry, DuPage, Kane, Will and Lake counties filed separate lawsuits Thursday against several drugmakers, including Lake Bluff-based Abbott Laboratories, as well as three doctors.

County officials gathered Thursday at the DuPage County government campus to announce the lawsuits.

“Like any ill-given profit in the short term, there is an exacting cost to be paid in the long run. In McHenry County, that cost is primarily what can’t be easily quantified – the lives and health of our residents and the misery of those whose loved ones have suffered or continue to suffer from addiction,” McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally said. “But it’s also the enormous civic costs that we as a county have faced as a result of and as part of our ongoing efforts to alleviate the catastrophic harm that has been done.”

Paul Hanly of Simmons Hanly Conroy LLC is representing every county except Lake County. He is representing about 100 different counties across the U.S. in similar cases.

Almost 60 people have died from opioid overdoses this year in McHenry County. The lawsuit claims that the drug companies’ deceptive marketing of pain pills has led to 2.1 million Americans getting hooked on the powerful drugs, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

The counties seek an unspecified amount of damages to compensate for the money they spend each year on health care, pharmaceutical care and other services and programs for addicts.

Kenneally said no dollar amount has been set for how much each county has spent on the epidemic. The cost will be determined during the discovery process, he said.

“We expect it to be a sizable sum in the millions of dollars range,” Kenneally said.

The lawsuit specifically named Abbott Laboratories, Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Cephalon Inc., Johnson & Johnson, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Endo Health Solutions, Dr. Perry Fine, Dr. Scott Fishman and Dr. Lynn Webster.

“The end goal is to get the drug manufacturers to abate the public nuisance they created and to compensate all the counties for all the damages and losses that occurred and are ongoing. As we stand here today, these losses continue to mount,” DuPage County State’s Attorney Bob Berlin said.

The lawsuit will not be paid for with taxpayer dollars, Kenneally said.

The costs will be covered by the law firm, and if it is won, Simmons Hanly Conroy LLC will get 25 percent of the amount awarded for each county.

Hanly first sued Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, in 2003. Since then, he has represented thousands of people who became addicted to opioids through pain pills.

Purdue settled for $75 million in 2006, admitting that the company had downplayed the addictive risk of its medicine. Now, Hanly is setting his sights on a bigger settlement, as he represents cities and counties in five states across the U.S.

Kenneally compared the suits that are popping up every month with the litigation against the tobacco industry that resulted in a $246 billion settlement in 1998.

The lawsuit says that companies knew opioids were addictive and too debilitating for long-term use, and that the effects of opioids wear off after prolonged use, requiring increased dosages.

Controlled studies on the safety and efficacy of opioids were limited to short-term use no longer than 90 days, but defendants created a false perception of safety to both medical professionals and the public, the lawsuit says.

Companies used a coordinated, sophisticated and highly deceptive marketing campaign that began in the late 1990s, became more aggressive in 2006 and continues today, the suit claims.

Kane County State’s Attorney Joe McMahon said the lawsuit will take several years, and he expects the litigation will be contested, but the counties are prepared to see the suit through to its end.

Kenneally said he thinks other counties across the state will join the legal effort.

Uptick in opioids

The number of opioid overdoses has increased by 17 percent since 2016.

There have been 58 deaths attributed to opioid overdose in McHenry County in 2017 –about 80 percent of all overdose deaths in the county this year. Four deaths still are being investigated as possible overdoses, McHenry County Coroner Anne Majewski said.

Of the opioid overdoses, almost half were caused by heroin, with a third from prescribed opioid medication alone or with other drugs, and a quarter from fentanyl, an opioid that can be 100 to 10,000 times stronger than morphine.

There were 46 opioid overdose deaths in 2016, Majewski said.

Although Americans represent 4.6 percent of the world’s population, they consume 80 percent of the opioids supplied around the world, the suit states.

Molly DeGroh, a neonatal intensive care nurse at Centegra Hospital – McHenry, said she has seen more babies born with opioid addiction because of their mothers’ drug use. In 2016, 27 babies were treated in immediate care nursery for withdrawal, DeGroh said.

“These babies often stay in our nurseries well past the time their mothers are discharged and struggle with neonatal abstinence syndrome, with symptoms such as difficulty to settle the baby, problems gaining weight and eating, skin rash and seizures,” DeGroh said.

Lack of resources

Fighting the epidemic has been costly in McHenry County, where public funds increasingly are needed for substance abuse counseling, emergency services, hospitalization costs and law enforcement agencies.

Kenneally said the county would use any money from the lawsuit to provide more resources for addicts.

“We’d like to acquire these damages not to line our own pockets but to use them to develop resources within the community to alleviate the damage that has been done,” Kenneally said.

One of the next goals for Kenneally is establishing a local detox center. McHenry County has no recovery beds for people just recovering from drugs.

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