SCHENECTADY COUNTY — Schenectady County officials say the opioid abuse and heroin epidemics cost the county millions of dollars every year — costs that range from law enforcement and court expenses to the price of placing addicts' children in foster care.
On Thursday, the county filed a state Supreme Court lawsuit against more than a dozen major pharmacy companies, alleging much of today's epidemic can be blamed on drug companies' policies regarding the sale of prescription painkillers. It is the first county in the Capital Region to file such a lawsuit.
"It's a matter of their falsely alleging the drugs they were selling were not addictive," County Attorney Christopher Gardner said at a press conference in the county offices before the lawsuit was filed with the county clerk.
We recently did a three-part series focusing on the region's struggles with the growing opioid addiction epidemic.
The lawsuit -- which mirrors lawsuits filed by seven other counties around the state — claims drug companies mislead doctors into thinking modern opioid painkillers are safe. That, in turn, lead doctors to prescribe the medications for chronic pain, which spurred addiction in more patients.
A growing list of governments are filing such lawsuits. The state of Ohio filed one at the end of May, and West Virginia reached a multi-million dollar settlement for a lawsuit it filed even earlier. The city of Chicago has also sued, as have counties in California.
The pharmacy companies deny any wrongdoing and are fighting the suits.
"Schenectady County has invested significant resources to combat the opioid epidemic that is occurring here in our community," said Anthony Jasenski, chairman of the county Legislature. "Our action today is an attempt by Schenectady County to force these opioid manufacturers to change their behavior and be held accountable for contributing to this epidemic."
Opioid addiction has become a public health issue nationwide.
In 2014, there were 19,000 overdose deaths in the U.S., a number that had quadrupled from 15 years earlier, according to a government report. In 2015, total deaths grew to 25,000. Schenectady County saw 55 overdose deaths between 2009 and 2013 — a number county officials believe has grown since then. In 2014, there were also 529 opioid abuse-related hospital admissions in the county.
The opioid family of drugs includes morphine, hydrocodone and oxycodone, all of which have legitimate medical uses in addition to the potential for abuse.
One of the companies named in the lawsuit is Purdue Pharma, maker of Oxycontin, one of the mostly commonly abused opioids.
"While we vigorously deny the allegations in the complaint, we share public officials' concerns about the opioid crisis, and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions," said Purdue Pharma officials in a written statement. "At Purdue, we have dedicated ourselves to working with policymakers, public health officials and law enforcement to address this public health crisis, which includes developing abuse-deterrent technology, advocating for the use of prescription drug monitoring programs and supporting access to (overdose reversal agent) Naloxone."
Recovery advocate James DeSantis, himself a recovering addict, said he understands people are responsible for their own conduct, but he nevertheless supports the lawsuit. His addiction began after he was prescribed hydrocodone for chronic pain, he said.
"It's important to remember that the doctors were being misled, and people seeking alternatives for chronic pain were being told it is safe," DeSantis said.
Gardner said it is difficult to put a figure on the cost to the county, but it is "millions and millions of dollars" annually. The costs don't just involve police protections, arrests and court costs, but the costs of treating Medicaid-dependent drug patients and the social services costs of supporting families troubled by addiction.
"It's not an inner-city issue; it's not a suburban issue. It effects all of us," Jasenski said.
The county Legislature authorized the lawsuit in March, agreeing to retain Simmons, Hanly Conroy LLC of New York City, which also represents six other New York counties that have filed similar lawsuits. The others are Broome, Erie, Dutchess, Orange, Suffolk and Sullivan counties. Nassau County has filed a similar case but is using a different law firm.
Gardner said there is no cost to the county of the legal effort unless a settlement or verdict is reached.