The city of Lexington filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against more than a dozen drug manufacturers and distributors alleging the companies helped cause an opioid addiction epidemic by flooding the city with pain pills.
The city wants the companies to reimburse it for the escalating cost of dealing with drug addiction. Those costs haven’t yet been tallied, but the city spends more than a $1 million a year on drug treatment, including programs at the Fayette County Detention Center.
Fayette County is believed to be the 35th county in Kentucky to file a lawsuit against drug manufactures and wholesalers. The lawsuits contend the companies failed to track the amount of opioids, such as Oxycontin, that were being sold throughout the state.
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AmerisourceBergen operates distribution centers in Louisville and, until recently, in Paducah, according to the lawsuits. Cardinal Health has a call center in Radcliff, and McKesson operates a distribution center in Louisville.
Holding drug makers and distributors accountable is essential, Mayor Jim Gray said at a news conference at the Lexington Government Center Thursday morning. “Profits should never come before people.”
An official with the trade association for drug distributors has said the lawsuits filed by Kentucky counties against drug makers and distributors are misguided.
“As distributors, we understand the tragic impact the opioid epidemic has on communities across the country,” John Parker, senior vice president of the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, said in a statement in September. “We are deeply engaged in the issue and are taking our own steps to be part of the solution — but we aren’t willing to be scapegoats. We are ready to have a serious conversation about solving a complex problem and are eager to work with political leaders and all stakeholders in finding forward-looking solutions.”
Gray said the government and social service groups have ramped up education, prevention and treatment options in the past few years, but the death toll continues to climb.
“Even so, overdose deaths doubled in Lexington between 2013 and 2016. Fayette County ranks second in the state for heroin-related deaths; second in the state for fentanyl-related deaths,” Gray said. “This lawsuit is a logical next step for our community.”
Lexington’s overdose deaths climbed to 162 in 2016, up from 141 in 2015, according to a report from the state’s Office of Drug Control Policy. Only Jefferson County had more overdose deaths, the report found.
Debbie Blauser said she may have died of an overdose if she hadn’t gotten help through the Hope Center’s inpatient drug treatment program.
Blauser, who spoke at the press conference Thursday, said she started drinking at 13. She later switched to prescription pain pills and eventually heroin because it was cheap and pills became harder to get. But her addiction also led her to jail.
In 2010, after 13 months at the Hope Center, she finally got sober but relapsed in October 2016. Blauser called Hope Center and they got her back into the program despite not having a bed, she said.
“No one wants to be an addict. No one wants to die,” Blauser said. “There is a solution. I do the meetings. I have a sponsor. They make me do the work.”
Councilman Richard Moloney, who encouraged the merged government to join other Kentucky counties in filing a lawsuit against drug wholesalers, said it’s hard to find someone in Lexington who hasn’t been effected by heroin.
Moloney said two city employees’ have had children who have died of drug overdoses. Another mother of a child who overdosed pushed Moloney to go after the drug makers who made pain pills so easy to get, he said.
“We aren’t joining the state’s lawsuit, which is going after fines,” Moloney said. “This is about the costs to the city.”
There is no upfront cost to the city for filing the lawsuit, Moloney said. The law firms representing the merged government will only get paid if the city’s lawsuit is successful, officials said. Those fees will be paid from whatever reimbursement the city receives from the drug companies.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Kentucky.