Bexar County will be among the first in Texas to challenge major pharmaceutical companies in court for their role in the opioid crisis.
Civil lawsuits filed by Bexar and Dallas counties have been set for trial in October 2020, Bexar County officials announced Tuesday morning. They estimated damages in the case — assuming the counties can prove their claims in court — could exceed $1 billion, a figure that reflects the effect of opioid use on the community for the past decade and ongoing treatment efforts.
Filed in May 2018, the Bexar County lawsuit accuses more than two dozen opioid manufacturers, including industry giants Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson, of deceptive marketing practices, fraud, false representations and efforts to hone in on vulnerable patient populations. It alleges those actions fueled the opioid crisis in the San Antonio area, which has the state’s highest rate of babies exposed to drugs in the womb and the fifth-highest rate of overdose deaths.
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According to a statement on its website, Purdue “strongly denies the allegations made against the company in the pending litigation but is committed to working with all relevant parties towards a constructive resolution.” The statement said lawsuits that have been filed across the country against manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors and pharmacy chains “contain allegations, not proven facts.”
“The responsibility for this crisis cannot, as a matter of law, be tied to one company that manufactures a small fraction of the prescription opioids in the United States,” the statement said.
In its own statement, Johnson & Johnson said the allegations made in opioid lawsuits were “false” and “distorting the facts.” The company said it had complied with laws and regulations in manufacturing, selling and distributing of pain medicines, which was conducted by two former subsidiaries of Johnson & Johnson.
“Critically, as a supplier, we did not have any role in the manufacturing, sales, or marketing of the finished products of other manufacturers,” the statement said.
San Antonio has been at the center of efforts to tackle opioid epidemic.
According to Drug Enforcement Administration data recently compiled by the Washington Post, more than 326 million prescription pain pills flooded into Bexar County from 2006 to 2012.
“This is a condition we’re continuing to live with every day here,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said during a news conference.
Wolff compared the lawsuit to legal challenges against the tobacco industry, which accused manufacturers of fraudulent marketing that targeted youth and attempts to cover up health problems linked to smoking.
Bringing a challenge at the county level, rather than at the state level, opens up “a greater opportunity to bring the money here,” Wolff said. If the lawsuit is successful, proceeds would go toward treatment programs in Bexar County, including through University Health System and the Center for Health Care Services, he said.
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A task force formed in 2017 has spearheaded efforts to increase access to naloxone, or Narcan, the opioid overdose-reversing nasal spray, and has trained first responders and law enforcement officers on its use. The task force also established additional sites to dispose of leftover medication and made strides toward establishing a needle exchange program.
Last year, Crosspoint and UT Health San Antonio opened new transitional housing for mothers recovering from opioid addiction and their children.
Such efforts have been supported by millions of dollars in grants, including federal funding awarded in March to UT Health San Antonio’s School of Nursing that will facilitate Narcan training on a statewide basis. It also will fund a program to follow up with recent overdose victims.
TJ Mayes, Wolff’s former chief of staff and chairman of the task force, said substance abuse overwhelms the county’s law enforcement resources, jails and courts. The financial burden is paired with the toll on the community, he said.
“This is not merely a financial crisis. It is also a humanitarian crisis,” Mayes said, mentioning people who have died from overdoses. “There’s no dollar amount that can bring back those losses.”
Lauren Caruba covers health care and medicine in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read her on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @LaurenCaruba