Opioid manufacturers and distributors should be held responsible for the national prescription drug abuse epidemic and compensate Fairfax County for the damages it has experienced as a result, county officials argued in a lawsuit filed in Fairfax County Circuit Court on Apr. 30.
The complaint filed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors names more than 50 companies as defendants, including OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma, pharmaceutical distributor McKesson Corporation, and pharmacy benefit managers like CVS Health.
Up to 100 unknown “Doe” defendants are also included in the lawsuit due to their alleged involvement in, and association with, the opioid crisis, though their names, identities, and capacities are “presently known to the plaintiff,” according to the complaint.
In its complaint, Fairfax County contends that opioid manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacy benefit managers ensured that their drugs would be widely available while misrepresenting their addictive nature to the public in order to profit.
“Opioids are the number one cause of unnatural death in Fairfax County, and our residents are demanding action in response to this epidemic,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova said. “…Fairfax County seeks to hold drug companies accountable for their role in this nationwide crisis.”
The lawsuit accuses all defendants of violating statutory and common law public nuisance standards, participating in a common law civil conspiracy, multiple counts of negligence, and unjust enrichment.
The manufacturer defendants also face counts of violating the Virginia Consumer Protection Act, fraud, and negligence per se for allegedly failing to perform statutory and regulatory obligations under the Virginia Drug Control Act and the Controlled Substance Act.
The distributor defendants face a separate count of negligence per se for failing or refusing to disclose suspicious orders to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the Virginia Board of Pharmacy, and boards with prescribing authority.
Represented by outside legal firms Kaufman & Canoles, P.C., Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP, and The Cicala Law Firm PLLC, Fairfax County is seeking at least $750 million in compensatory damages, punitive damages of $350,000 per defendant, and for the court to force defendants to stop the conduct that led to the current opioid epidemic.
Now the most prescribed class of drugs, opioids generated $11 billion in revenue for drug companies in 2014, and Americans consume 80 percent of the prescription opioids produced globally despite making up only 5 percent of the world’s population, according to the lawsuit.
Fairfax County saw 259 opioid-related deaths between 2015 and 2017, making the drug more deadly during that period than both motor vehicle crashes and firearms, according to the county based on data from the Virginia Department of Health’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’s most recent annual report found that, statewide, deaths linked to heroin and fentanyl surpassed those connected to prescription opioids in 2015, but the latter still contributed to 33.1 percent of all fatal drug overdoses in 2017.
Then-Virginia State Health Commissioner Marissa Levine declared opioid addiction a public health emergency on Nov. 21, 2016.
After increasing for three consecutive years, the number of opioid-related deaths seen in Fairfax County became steadier over the past year with an average of 80 to 120 fatal overdoses annually, according to Fairfax County Police Lt. James Krause, who serves as an assistant commander in the department’s organized crime and narcotics division.
Krause attributes that leveling out to a combination of heightened awareness and the growing availability of naloxone, a medication that can be used to reverse an overdose in an emergency.
County officials cautioned against interpreting that as evidence that the problem has been solved in a press conference held at the West Springfield Government Center on Apr. 27 in conjunction with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s National Prescription Drug Take Back Day.
“Working with so many county and private partners, Fairfax County’s been able to accomplish a lot, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done,” Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity said.
In addition to collecting more than 735 pounds of unused prescription medications since starting a drug take-back pilot program in September 2017, Fairfax County has devoted more funding and resources to addressing the opioid epidemic in recent years.
According to the county’s lawsuit against drug companies, the taxpayer costs of dealing with the crisis range from increased costs for incarceration and correction services to over-utilized fire and emergency medical services.
“Courts, social workers, nurses, schools, intervention programs, and clinics have all been harmed,” the complaint says. “Nearly every aspect of Fairfax County’s budget has been significantly and negatively impacted by this Defendant-made epidemic.”
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors appropriated $3.6 million in Fiscal Years 2018 and 2019 carryover funds and an additional $1.47 million in FY 2019 for an opioid task force plan that the board approved in January 2018.
The advertised FY 2020 budget, which underwent markup on Tuesday, allocates an additional $2.8 million for the plan.
Developed based on recommendations by a task force and steering group formed by the board in April 2017, the Fairfax County Opioid Task Force Plan aims to reduce deaths from opioids through prevention, treatment, and harm reduction and to gather data to evaluate the problem and the effectiveness of the county’s response.
The FY 2020 funds will continue to go to treatment and education programs, public awareness campaigns, the maintenance of drug take-back programs at county police stations, data collection and monitoring, and masks to protect law enforcement personnel at risk of direct exposure to fentanyl.
In July 2018, the Board of Supervisors also approved two detective positions and an analyst position in the Fairfax County Police Department for a new overdose investigative unit dedicated to analyzing opioid deaths with the goal of identifying and prosecuting culpable drug dealers.
“Ultimately, our goal is to seek justice for the victims and long-term decrease the amount of opioids that are being distributed out there,” Krause said.