SCHENECTADY COUNTY — County lawmakers are laying the groundwork for a lawsuit against some drug manufacturers over the Medicaid and other costs it incurs due to the opiate addiction epidemic.
County legislative committees approved authorization for a lawsuit last week, and the County Legislature was scheduled to act on a resolution authorizing a lawsuit at its Tuesday night meeting in Schenectady, though a winter storm bearing down on the region may impact that meeting.
If the county pursues the action through a New York City law firm, it will be joining Suffolk, Erie and Broome counties in seeking relief from a nationwide addiction epidemic that has caused emergency room visits, hospitalizations and an estimated 55 opiate-related overdose deaths in Schenectady County alone over a recent five-year period. The county has also incurred higher law enforcement costs, social services and jail expenses because of the epidemic.
“It’s millions and millions of dollars each year,” said County Attorney Christopher Gardner.
On Monday, a New York State Association of Counties meeting at Schenectady County Community College brought together dozens of county legislators, town supervisors, sheriff’s officers, mental health directors, public health commissioners and addiction prevention specialists from Albany, Columbia, Montgomery, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady and Washington counties to talk about the epidemic.
“This is a public health crisis that impacts many different county departments, including the legal system, law enforcement, mental health services and social services,” said Karen B. Johnson, the Legislature’s vice chairwoman.
The Schenectady lawsuit, like the others, will argue that some pharmaceutical companies, to be named in the lawsuit, have financially benefited from advertising practices that misled doctors, patients and the medical community, resulting in the over-prescription of strong pain medications. The drugs can be addictive, and many authorities believe the use of legal prescription opiates has led many users to illegal heroin.
Similar lawsuits against big pharmaceutical companies have been brought across the nation, including cases filed by the city of Chicago and two California counties, according to published reports. The pharmaceutical companies involved have denied the charges.
The state Department of Health said that, between 2009 and 2013, Schenectady County averaged 11 overdose deaths per year. In 2014, there were 529 opioid-related hospital admissions in the county — up 20 percent from 2010.
Figures for more recent years aren’t available, though there’s a general perception that the epidemic has, if anything, worsened. Gardner said he suspects the 55 overdoses counted between 2009 and 2013 is an underestimate.
The county earlier this winter announced plans to put more law enforcement and prosecution resources behind efforts to reduce the supply of illegal opiates like heroin, as well as the illegal sale of prescription painkillers.
“While understanding the high risk of addiction, the (other) suits allege that, driven by profits, the drug companies promoted the prescription of opiates for long-term pain management, and in so doing, created the prescription opioid crisis,” Gardner wrote in a memo to the Legislature.
County officials have yet to specify the costs to the county, though they note the expense has contributed to the county’s $30 million annual Medicaid bill.
The firm to be retained for the suit, Simmons, Hanly Conroy LLC of New York City, would receive between 10 percent and 40 percent of any future settlement, depending on whether the case is settled before trial or not. Unless there is a verdict or a settlement, it will cost the county no money, Gardner said.