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Why Are So Many New York Counties Suing Big Pharma Over The Opioid Crisis?


ITHACA (WSKG) - Back in the ‘90s, states sued big tobacco to pay for the costs of caring for smokers. Now, New York state counties, including Broome, are trying to sue big pharma over the opioid crisis. And Tompkins County is weighing whether it wants in.

It’s pretty attractive. It’s free for the counties because their lawyers just get a cut of the winnings.

But, Tompkins County must decide if it’s worth the time and manpower to provide information for a county lawsuit — or just join a potential statewide suit.

After a day in felony drug court, Todd Livingston stood on the front steps of the Tompkins County Courthouse in Ithaca. He’s a defense lawyer and said half the cases in the court are opioid-related. Some have died from overdoses.

He told us, “I can’t give you an accurate number. But enough, that it’s bothersome. Maybe it’s one of those things I don’t really want to think about.”

According to the state health department, sixteen people died from opioid overdoses in Tompkins County in 2016. That’s significantly more than the previous year and above the state average, which puts a strain on county health services and jails.

So some counties are trying to recoup the costs by suing big pharma. They are taking a page from the largest class action lawsuit in U.S. history, when states sued big tobacco in the ‘90s. The states won and the counties hoped they could get a cut of it too.

On a recent visit to Paul Hanly’s office in Midtown Manhattan, he told us that didn’t happen. He is a partner at Simmons Hanly Conroy and has successfully sued pharmaceutical companies before.

Hanly explained, “The counties all assumed that since the cigarette addiction, lung cancer problems were affecting people in their counties, that in the event of a recovery by the state, the money recovered would flow down to the counties. That proved to be completely false.”

State governments hung on to the money and used a lot of it to fill budget gaps instead of related issues, like smoking cessation programs.

Hanly thinks Broome and other counties will get more money suing Big Pharma on their own. So, he is representing them in the lawsuit. His firm handles the largest number of county-based suits: They represent around 20 percent of all counties in New York state.

But why not sue all the people responsible for the opioid epidemic? Why not also sue the doctors who prescribed addictive medications, or the FDA, which approved the bogus warning labels of drugs like OxyContin?

In short, big pharma also fooled these groups.

Hanly responded, “The medical community at large was duped, and therefore the medical community at large are allied with the interests of our clients, who also were duped into believing that it was appropriate, for example, for state county Medicaid programs to spend money on these drugs, and for physicians to be administering them.”

Of course, Hanly has a financial interest in this.

But Professor Howard Erichson agrees with him. Erichson’s a legal scholar from Fordham University.He also said if New York state decides to sue big pharma, it isn’t a big deal. New York’s attorney general is among 40 others who are considering suing big pharma too. But, according to Erichson, counties won’t lose out.

Erichson asserted, “The state is one public entity and counties and cities are separate public entities and each of them spends money and each one may have a separate claim against these defendants for the money that it claims ought to be recouped from the pharmaceutical companies.”

For example, in Tompkins County, state money mostly goes to treatment programs. But county money largely funds jails and the felony drug treatment court.

The county’s budgeted close to one million dollars for their alternatives to incarceration programs, including the drug court. If the county does join the lawsuit and they win, that money would likely go toward this court.

Tompkins County Legislature will vote this fall on whether justice will be served — both literally and financially — by joining a county-based suit.