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Counties to sue opioid manufacturers

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Washington County Attorney Pete Orput announced a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies Nov. 30. Other Minnesota counties also are suing. Pictured with Orput are Washington County Commissioner Karla Bigham of Cottage Grove and Washington County Sheriff Dan Starry. Katie Nelson / RiverTown Multimedia 2 / 3
Commissioner Lisa Weik spoke on behalf of the Washington County Board at an opioid lawsuit news conference Nov. 30. Katie Nelson / RiverTown Multimedia 3 / 3

Washington County, along with about 20 other Minnesota counties, announced civil action against major pharmaceutical companies Nov. 30 for the sale and manufacture of opioid drugs.

The counties will file separate lawsuits, but Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said they are all working in conjunction to launch the suits. Prosecutors say the lawsuits are a response to the rise in opioid abuse and an attempt to hold pharmaceutical companies responsible for their products and marketing.

"(There) will be more civil lawsuits to come as the weeks and month progress throughout the state of Minnesota around the issue of holding accountable the manufacturers and distributors of opiate pain medication for their role in what we are dealing with," Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said.

Orput said some of the suits will be filed in the state and others may be filed in federal court. Washington and Ramsey filed Nov. 30.

"Each of our suits are similar in that we've had enough of the fraudulent marketing and negligent distribution of opioids and all of us have been struggling with the devastating effects they have on our communities, and all of this has been done in the name of outrageous profits," he said.

The claim rests in part on what Orput called "fraudulent" marketing.

"(A manufacturer's) marketing claims must be supported by science, and that hasn't happened. The defendants broke those simple rules," Orput said.

"I don't want their money; I want the justice," Orput added. "But I'll take their money, because we have a huge problem and we need to fix it."

Services needed to treat the effects of opioids, including social and health and human services, used often rest in county control, which leads to significant costs to the county and taxpayers, official said.

"Washington County is just as much at risk as any other community," Washington County Board Chair Lisa Weik said.

There were 11 opioid overdose deaths in Washington County in 2016, and there have been 99 since 2000. Nearly 7 percent of Washington County students reported in the Minnesota Student Survey that they had used prescription drugs that were not prescribed to them in the last month.

Dakota County Commissioner Mike Slavik said the county seems to be moving in the direction of filing a complaint but they will vote on Dec. 12.

Slavik and Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom were at the news conference.

"It's an important issue that needs to be addressed," Backstrom said.

Washington County is suing manufacturing companies including Purdue Pharma,The Purdue Frederick Company, Teva Pharmaceutical, Cephalon, Johnson and Johnson, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Noramco, Endo Pharmaceuticals, Allergan, Watson Pharmaceuticals, Actavis, Watson Laboratories and distributing companies Mallinckrodt, McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation.

"We must hold these corporate schlockmeisters responsible for their rapacious profiteering that has directly contributed to deaths, family break-ups, hospitalizations and addiction," Orput said. "The manufacturers and distributors caused this epidemic and we're asking that it stop."

John Parker, senior vice president of Healthcare Distribution Alliance — a trade association representing wholesale distributors including McKesson, Cardinal, and AmeriSource Bergen — said they understand the crisis and are willing to work with politicians to solve the opioid crisis, though they should not be held responsible for it.

"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 don't make medicines, market medicines, prescribe medicines, or dispense them to consumers," he said through an email from a spokesperson. "Given our role, the idea that distributors are solely responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and how it is regulated."

Minnesota is not the only state to file against pharmaceutical companies that manufacture and distribute opioids, including several Wisconsin counties.

Washington County is using Minneapolis law firm Lockridge Grindal Nauen.

Michelle Wirth contributed to this story.