County in crisis joins opioid litigation action

Kali Katerberg/Daily Mining Gazette Attorney Andrew K. Shotwell of the Smith and Johnson law firm presents information on opioid litigation options Tuesday to the Ontonagon County Board.

ONTONAGON — The opioid crisis has hit the Ontonagon County region hard, an attorney told the County Board on Tuesday, resulting in one of the highest opioid-related hospitalization rates in Michigan.

“It’s tearing families apart, communities apart,” said attorney Andrew K. Shotwell of the Smith and Johnson law firm. “It’s putting stress on the infrastructure of the counties and municipalities that have to respond to this.”

Shotwell went over some Ontonagon-specific statistics from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Service’s Substance Use in Michigan web page. Between 2000-15, Ontonagon County had five deaths related to opioid use, he said, and opioid use is increasing, with 17.2 opioid-related hospitalizations per 10,000 residents in 2013.

“Ontonagon in the top 10 for that in the state of Michigan,” Shotwell said.

Prescriptions also rose from 65.6 per 100 people in the county in 2009 to 113 in 2016, more than the number of people.

“That’s almost doubled in seven years. You can see how this starts mushrooming,” he said.

County Board commissioners voted unanimously to join in litigation against opioid manufacturers and distributors, joining municipalities around the state and more than 500 nationwide.

The county will be joining as a plaintiff against mostly large or often privately owned manufacturers like CVS, Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson, Shotwell said.

The goal of the litigation would be to penalize the companies for mishandling and mislabeling the drugs, and recoup some of the costs spent dealing with the opioid epidemic locally, said Shotwell, citing as examples funds spent on social services, courts and incarceration.

The opioids often lead to illegal drug use of substances like heroin, which increases the potential for overdoses.

Ontonagon will have its own set of damages if successful, and the county will be able to use the funds as it sees fit.

Some of the companies involved have already pleaded guilty in other situations to mislabeling in the case of the pharmaceuticals and neglecting to report large numbers of prescriptions in the case of distributors.

The county will not have to pay the litigation costs, but if successful, 30 percent of damages awarded will go to attorneys for their services.

Ontonagon will be working with Weitz and Luxenberg, Sam Bernstein Law Firm and Smith and Johnson Attorneys.

“The way I see this, it’s basically trying to hold drug companies that produce these products accountable, because they were aware of the addiction rates and potential prior to marketing them and they marketed them anyhow without due warnings to people and to the prescribers,” County Board member Gray Webber said in supporting the litigation.