HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — Sarah Kelly recalls fleeting moments when she sought help for a decade of opioid addiction, only to find no residential treatment beds were available in a system overloaded in his corner of West Virginia.
In the hardest-hit county in the nation’s worst-hit state by drug overdose deaths per capita, Kelly’s struggles with prescription painkillers cost her custody of her two children. Her younger sister died of a heart infection due to intravenous drug use in 2017.
Somehow, the Huntington resident wouldn’t let her addiction get the better of her.
“I was so tired living without them,” Kelly said. “I couldn’t live without them anymore.”
Six months have passed since closing arguments were held in the first lawsuit against the drug abuse epidemic in the United States to go to trial. He blames three pharmaceutical companies for their role in the opioid crisis in the Huntington area. For Kelly and others who know the desperation that comes with addiction, the time it takes to reach a verdict seems out of step with the urgency they feel.
Kelly eventually found treatment and went to court to get her children back. She has been recovering since October 2019. But that nightmare of not being able to locate a bed right away returns as a decision looms in the trial.
Cabell County and the City of Huntington sued AmerisourceBergen Drug Co., Cardinal Health Inc. and McKesson Corp. A federal judge must decide whether the companies created a public nuisance by dispensing 81 million prescription painkillers over eight years — and whether they ignored signs that the Ohio River community was wracked with drug addiction.
The plaintiffs are seeking more than $2.5 billion. The money would go to prevention, treatment and education.
Kelly, 38, said help couldn’t come fast enough.
“There are people dying every day,” Kelly said. “A lot of us are lucky to be alive and to have found a cure. There are a lot of people who could really benefit from this. There are a lot of programs that could benefit from this and save lives.
From 2015 to 2020, Cabell County had 8,252 people — about 10% of its population — with opioid use disorders, plaintiffs’ attorney Paul T. Farrell Jr. said in closing argument. , citing expert testimony. The county has 106 Medicaid-approved beds for residential treatment of such patients, according to the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
Closing arguments took place in late July after the nearly three-month bench trial in Charleston. U.S. District Judge David Faber has not yet indicated when he may rule.
“It’s concerning that it’s taking a long time, even though we know these things take time,” said Kim Miller, an addiction counselor at Prestera Center, a treatment center in Huntington. “The longer it takes, the more questions arise and the less likely it is to get a satisfactory verdict.”
For many people who have abused prescription painkillers, the trial money will “come too late,” Miller said.
In Cabell County last year, there were nearly 900 emergency medical responses for suspected overdoses. In 3% of cases, the patient was pronounced dead at the scene. According to DHHR, about 1,400 emergency room visits in the county were linked to overdoses.
Lawyers familiar with the trial said they were not alarmed by the months without a verdict.
“A lot of people have been waiting a long time, and maybe people are underestimating the complexity of the case and the difficulty of reaching a resolution,” said University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias. “I think Judge Faber just takes the time to get it right.”
West Virginia University law professor Patrick McGinley, representing the HD Media news group, was instrumental in forcing the Drug Enforcement Administration to release a database of pain medication shipments from distributors to across the United States, including more than a billion to West Virginia from 2006 to 2014. The Charleston Gazette-Mail won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the state’s opioid crisis.
McGinley, who teaches a seminar on prescription opioid litigation, said Faber’s courtroom trial “would produce thousands, if not tens of thousands of pages of transcripts of testimony, hundreds, if not thousands of exhibits”, then Faber has to research the law.
Public nuisance claims result in some 3,000 lawsuits by state and local governments against drugmakers, distribution companies and pharmacies. Faber can take a look at cases in other states; since the end of the pleadings, other lawsuits on opioids have followed one another.
In northern Ohio, a federal jury ruled in November that pharmacies CVS, Walgreens and Walmart recklessly dispensed massive amounts of painkillers in two counties. A judge will decide by spring how much pharmacies should pay in damages.
A jury from Long Island to New York found in late December that drugmaker Teva Pharmaceuticals had contributed to the opioid crisis there. A separate lawsuit will determine what Teva will have to pay.
Drug companies won lawsuits decided in November in northern California and Oklahoma.
A judge dismissed OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma’s sweeping settlement of thousands of lawsuits in December. Another judge refused to allow litigation to continue against the Sackler family members who own the company, but also ordered negotiations for a reworked settlement.
The opioid crisis has been linked to more than 500,000 deaths in the United States since 2000, including overdoses of prescription opioids and illicit opioids such as heroin and fentanyl.
McGinley said while Cabell and Huntington County need resources now to deal with the opioid problem, the case likely won’t end with Faber’s decision.
“It’s the legal process; we need to ensure fairness and respect for the rule of law,” McGinley said. “There is a saying: The wheels of justice turn extremely slowly. That’s certainly what it seems in a case like this.
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