Kanawha County moved forward Thursday on their fight against drug wholesalers, who they say helped to fuel the area’s opioid epidemic by shipping millions of painkillers to the county.
County Commissioners hired Greene, Ketchum, Farrell, Bailey & Tweel, a Huntington-based law firm, to represent them in a potential lawsuit against the wholesalers. The possible lawsuits would address the economic impact the opioid epidemic has had on the county. The Attorney General’s Office estimated about 66 million prescription pain pills were distributed in Kanawha County between 2007 and 2012.
According to Bert Ketchum, an attorney with Greene Ketchum, county commissions are able to declare issues like the opioid epidemic as public nuisances. Commissioners adopted a resolution declaring that the opioid epidemic is a public nuisance.
Commission President Kent Carper said the county’s jail bill is approximately $4.5 million each year. County officials estimate that more than three-quarters of inmates committed or are accused of drug offenses. Commissioners estimate millions of dollars are spent each year on other costs related to the opioid epidemic.
If a lawsuit is filed, multiple county agencies would be named as plaintiffs, including the Kanawha Sheriff’s Office, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department and the Kanawha County Emergency Ambulance Authority. Carper said if a settlement is reached, commissioners would determine how to use the funds.
“One thing would be to support the agencies that are brutalized by the drug epidemic,” Carper said.
Greene Ketchum is also representing the Boone County Commission in a similar lawsuit. Lawyers with the firm have presented similar plans to multiple other counties in the state, including Mercer and Cabell.
Carper said he would be surprised if every county in the state did not pursue similar lawsuits. He has also discussed the potential lawsuit with Charleston Mayor Danny Jones.
“While we’re sitting here right now, there are tax dollars being used to keep someone in jail, to treat someone who’s overdosed. It is phenomenal,” Carper said.
An attorney with the firm, Paul Farrell, said he also expects many other counties in the state to join. He said going through the county level allows local officials who understand the situation to get involved.
“The only way to fight this is to fight them in our backyard,” Farrell said.
Farrell believes if they are able to punish wholesalers monetarily, they may stop conducting business in West Virginia.
“They make hundreds of millions of dollars off us, and they refuse to stop,” Farrell said. “We can make them stop. We can drive up the economic cost of dumping hundreds of millions pills in our community.”
This comes after Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen, two drug wholesalers that have shipped massive quantities of pain pills to Southern West Virginia, paid $36 million to settle a lawsuit with the state last month.
A Gazette-Mail investigation found wholesalers poured more than 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to West Virginia over a six year period. The investigation showed 1,728 people fatally overdosed on those painkillers during that time.
The commission also discussed the process of replacing Commssioner Dave Hardy, who is departing from the position to become secretary of the state Department of Revenue.
Two people have applied for the open seat as of Thursday — Charleston City Treasurer Victor Grigoraci and Tornado Volunteer Fire Chief Gregory Childress. Others have publicly shown interest in the position. The commission will continue to accept resumes and cover letters from applicants until Jan. 30.
Hardy, in his last meeting, thanked all of the county employees he worked with during his 16 years on the commission. He said it was all thanks to the people who voted for him.
“That chair belonged to the public, it didn’t belong to me,” Hardy said.