Sumter County enters litigation against opioid manufacturers

BY ADRIENNE SARVIS
adrienne@theitem.com
Posted 12/16/18

Sumter County has entered into an attorney-client agreement, along with 12 other counties, to bring a lawsuit against multiple pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies as the fight against the opioid crisis continues.

There's an effort by the …

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Sumter County enters litigation against opioid manufacturers

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Sumter County has entered into an attorney-client agreement, along with 12 other counties, to bring a lawsuit against multiple pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies as the fight against the opioid crisis continues.

There's an effort by the majority of counties in South Carolina to address the opioid crisis through litigation, said Sumter County Administrator Gary Mixon.

About seven counties have yet to bring forward the option of litigation in this issue, as of Thursday.

Some areas throughout the country are prosecuting through federal court, Mixon said, and most counties in this state have elected to prosecute at the local level.

Sumter, at no cost, signed onto an agreement with Harrison White PC in Spartanburg to bring the case forward, he said.

The opioid problem is a major issue, so the county will work with a law firm that has experience with cases of this magnitude, he said.

"The concern is that the pharmaceutical companies - the drugs do what they say they'll do - but they marketed it as not being addictive," Mixon said.

The big problem, he said, is while people start with prescribed medication, they turn to illegal substances when their prescriptions expire.

Sumter County Attorney Johnathan Bryan said he and Sumter County Council Chairman Jim McCain signed the attorney-client agreement after a vote during Sumter County Council's meeting Tuesday.

Council approved a motion to sign the agreement in a 5-2 vote - Councilman Chris Sumpter and councilman Jimmy Byrd voted in opposition.

The complaint claims manufacturers promoted and marketed opioids for the long-term management of chronic pain by misleading consumers and medical providers through misrepresentations or omissions regarding the appropriate uses, risks and safety of opioids.

Controlled studies of opioids were limited to 90-day use, Bryan said reading the document, in managed settings like hospitals where the possibility of addictive behaviors were minimized.

Despite this knowledge, he continued, companies sought to create a false perception of the safety of opioids in the minds of medical professionals and members of the public and encouraged longer use of the drug for treatment of a wide range of problems including common aches and pains.

The defendants also knew that the effectiveness of opioids wanes over time, requiring an increase in dosage to achieve pain relief, Bryan said.

This false perception was accomplished through a marketing campaign that started in the late 1990s, according to the document, and became more aggressive in 2006.

At the county level, there are additional costs that can be attributed to the opioid issue such as growing medical needs, paramedic services and law enforcement and judicial services, Mixon said.

During a June 2017 interview, Sumter EMS Director Bobby Hingst said his department had seen a 40 percent increase in the amount of opioid-related calls since 2015.

He said paramedics were responding to about three calls per week regarding opioid use, the majority of which involve heroin.

The way the lawsuit is set up, Mixon said, if there is a settlement the county can determine how to use the funds to address education and rehabilitation of opioid abuse.

The county could do something similar to those attention-grabbing tobacco campaigns to educate the public and there could be some funding to set up clinics for rehabilitation, he said.

If the lawsuit is lost, Mixon said the law firm will incur the costs.

Bryan said he anticipates the case could go to court in January or February.

Sumpter said his decision to vote "no" was a difficult one but individuals must take responsibility for their actions and not depend on the government to act.

"I voted this way because I, along with my constituency, believe that the government should not be taking responsibility for individuals' personal decisions," he said.

Stepping into this will open the doors for several segments, he said.

Sumpter said he has relatives who were addicted to opioids and took responsibility and sought rehabilitation.

"We should not be a society that depends on the government to fight personal habits," he said. "We must be a society to help our fellow brother and sister, when in need, to beneficial resources."