SCHENECTADY COUNTY -- The County Legislature voted Thursday to have Schenectady County become the fourth New York county to sue large pharmacy companies over costs incurred by the county in fighting the epidemic of heroin and prescription opioid abuse.
The lawsuit charges that some drug manufacturers promoted long-established opioid drugs for use as long-term painkillers -- despite knowing their addictive properties -- and that that has lead to overdose deaths and greater social services, law enforcement and jail costs for the county, as people become addicted and commit crimes to get or pay for drugs.
"Our action today is an attempt by Schenectady County to force these opioid manufacturers to change their behavior and be held responsible for contributing to this epidemic," Legislature Chairman Anthony Jasenski said before the vote.
Erie, Broome and Suffolk counties have filed similar lawsuits in state courts, all using the same New York City law firm that Schenectady will use: Simmons, Hanly Conroy LLC, which will not receive any compensation unless a settlement or trial verdict is reached.
County Attorney Chris Gardner said a lawsuit could be filed in six to eight weeks.
The pharmacy companies involved, including Johnson & Johnson, have all denied the allegations of misleading doctors or consumers.
The resolution to file the lawsuit passed by a 12-2 margin, with two Republicans -- Brian McGarry of Rotterdam and Minority Leader James Buhrmaster of Glenville -- voting against it.
McGarry accused the majority of wholeheartedly endorsing plans for the new Schenectady casino, despite the risk it will increase gambling addiction, while criticizing pharmaceutical companies for promoting painkilling drugs.
"We shouldn't get between the doctor-patient relationship," McGarry said. "This will have a chilling effect on doctors' ability to prescribe for long-term pain. Big pharma isn't the problem ... In my opinion, this is a money-grab from an industry we should be championing."
Democratic Majority Leader Gary E. Hughes said misleading promotion of opioids wasn't the sole reason for the ongoing epidemic, but it has been a major contributing factor.
"I think what we're alleging here is that the pharmaceutical industry, through misinformation and misstatements, inserted itself into the doctor-patient relationship," he said. "These aren't new drugs, but their use for long-term pain management is new."
County officials point to some grim statistics: The state Health Department said 55 county residents died of overdoses between 2009 and 2013, and in 2014, there were 529 opioid-related admissions to Ellis Hospital, an increase of 20.8 percent since 2010.
Earlier this year, county officials announced plans to devote new law enforcement and prosecution resources to fighting drugs, and county officials said drug treatment and related medical costs contribute to the more than $30 million the county spends annually on Medicaid.
The Legislature met Thursday night, after Tuesday's snowstorm shut down county offices and forced postponement of the monthly meeting, which is usually held the second Tuesday of the month.
Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, firstname.lastname@example.org or @gazettesteve on Twitter.