Doctors at Floyd and Redmond Regional medical centers aren't objecting to the lawsuit against opioid manufacturers that local attorneys could file as early as this week.
"Knowing we rank very high for opioids in the state is very concerning," said Dr. Julie Barnes, chief medical officer at Redmond. "We want to contribute to the conversation and contribute to the solution."
At the heart of the issue is the claim that pharmaceutical companies intentionally marketed the painkillers as desirable and safe while ignoring signs of a growing epidemic of addiction.
"In one county alone they've seen over 9,000 prescriptions per person," Rome attorney Bob Finnell said. "They know what's happening."
The Floyd County Commission is expected to join the case Finnell and Andy Davis are preparing to add to the MDL — multijurisdiction litigation — consolidated in a federal district court in Ohio. Rome city commissioners are already on board.
Finnell said they've also been contacted by Chattooga and Whitfield counties, Cartersville, Dalton and other local governments, along with a hospital chain in six states and a Kentucky association of rural healthcare providers.
The Floyd County board acknowledged the opioid crisis as a national public health emergency and local public nuisance in January, but has held off official action pending talks with the medical community.
"The number of deaths are on the rise. The costs to our community, our health care providers, police department and hospitals are all on the rise," Commission Chair Rhonda Wallace said. "We must all come together and do our part to stop this crisis. We're just trying to make sure when we say yes ... we're doing the right thing by our partners."
The board is slated to meet Monday at noon with physicians from Redmond and Harbin Clinic. Commissioners heard Wednesday from Sheila Bennett, chief of patient care services at FMC, who holds a doctorate degree in nursing.
Bennett said Georgia hospitals already are taking action, including a new requirement to check a statewide prescription database before prescribing opioids to patients.
They also talk with surgical patients about the level of pain to expect during recovery and look for non-narcotic alternatives to get them through it. Except in cases such as terminal illness, cancer and chronic pain, prescriptions are for three days at a time.
"A lot of people who get addicted had a legitimate reason to use the medication," Bennett told the board. "People don't wake up one day and say 'I want to be a drug addict.' They don't realize how powerful this addiction really is."
In Georgia, she said, the in-patient group most commonly affected is age 60 and older. For out-patients, it's the 25 to 45 age group.
Bennett said FMC has seen an increase of involuntary commitments, with more than 1,000 presenting last year. That's an average of four to seven a day.
"They're not all related to drug overdoses, but it's common," she said.
FMC also has seen a rise in babies born addicted to opioids. Bennett said addicted babies can be cured but should be monitored as they grow up.
"Those babies are inconsolable," she said. "We have to hold them, get volunteers to come in and just hold them."
"And then they go into foster care and have long-term effects," Commissioner Allison Watters added.
Commissioners indicated that settlement money from the lawsuit could be used to establish local programs aimed at addressing the problems. Finnell said the Ohio judge has signaled that he is on the same wavelength.
"We're not trying to put the medical companies out of business. ... It's a multifaceted problem and the focus is on long-term solutions," he said.
Terry Wheeler is expected to take over as interim campus safety director at Shorter University this week in the wake of Paula Penson being fired from the post Thursday, according to spokeswoman Dawn Tolbert.
Wheeler previously served as director. Penson said she was told by two current employees that Wheeler was on campus being walked around Friday when she went to pick up her termination paperwork and belongings from her office. She was not allowed past the gatehouse, where an officer gave her a cardboard box containing the paperwork and items.
"It was all thrown in a box, taped shut and left at the gatehouse," she said.
She described the incident as the latest "slap in the face" from the university following her coming forward alleging sexual and work harassment against her by former Vice President of Student Affairs Corey Humphries. A "hostile" work environment was created after the allegations, she said.
The termination letter stated Penson would be paid through Thursday — along with any unused vacation time. The university would not comment on if Humphries, who resigned Nov. 8, received a severance package or if, generally, employees who resign get them.
"It is the university's policy to not comment on specific personnel matters," Tolbert said in an email Friday.
In the termination letter — written by Director of Auxiliary Services Lance Moore, who was assigned to a supervisory role over campus safety in response to Penson's allegations — the causes for her being fired are "insubordination and failure to follow university policy."
It lists three instances of "insubordination" — Nov. 10, 2017; Dec. 7, 2017; and Jan. 23, 2018.
The first relates to Penson refusing to follow Moore's "directive" to share a criminal trespass order, the letter stated. Penson said she refused to remind former head cheerleading coach Chad Reid of the criminal trespass order against him because his planned attendance at a football game Nov. 11 was based on rumors. She told Moore to take action against Reid if he did go to the game, she said.
The second incident relates to her telling Moore, after he "asked" her, that she would not email officers to notify them of a relocation of the campus safety office, the letter stated. Penson said she told Moore she would share this information face-to-face with her officers, "on a personal level," during a staff meeting the next week.
The letter stated the last instance dealt with Penson — who said she had student hearings — not complying with Moore's instruction for her to "cover security on a specific area on campus." The day before, Penson said, Moore had failed to find a "fill-in" for an officer who had to take time off and did not tell Penson they needed someone to cover his duty.
"He got mad at me because I said, 'No sir, I will handle it another way,' as I had been doing for the past eight years," Penson said, adding that she had all the posts covered within minutes.
One day in the spring of 1955, Milton McConnell — a towering figure at 6 feet 5 inches — was walking down Broad Street when Rome's police chief stopped him.
The chief told the black tailor, "You look like you would make a good policeman." Apparently Milton Mc- Connell thought he would make a good officer too, because on May 13, 1955, he became the first black man to join the Rome Police Department.
"That's how it happened," recalled Belinda McConnell, his daughter. "He really enjoyed it."
He was also possibly the first in-house tailor, as he often volunteered to make alterations to uniforms when the y were needed. He mainly worked the evening shift, but on Tuesdays she said he would take the kids to the movies or baseball games.
This quiet and caring man did not go to any police academy — there wasn't one — so any training was received on the job.
Current Rome police investigator Randy Gore — who has been compiling a history of the department and came across Milton McConnell's story through his daughter — said that back then new officers would get a gun from a pawn shop and report for duty.
Prior to integration in the late '60s, Belinda Mc- Connell said her father, along with Frank Jones, another black officer hired around that time, weren't allowed to make calls by themselves. And they couldn't arrest or stop any white person, she said.
"That was during those times," she said. As she was a kid growing up, he was a policeman during the civil rights movement.
When black high schoolers staged sit-ins at local restaurants, Belinda Mc- Connell said she and her brother weren't allowed to participate.
"He would lose his job if we would happen to get arrested for things like that," she said. "As a kid I had to really walk a straight line."
Her father never spoke in specifics about his work, but he was a man who always wanted to take care of people, that much was clear to the young Belinda McConnell. He taught people to drive, and even though the family only had one car — a Buick — he would lend it to neighbors when they needed it. But he would also pile people in the car to take them to Vacation Bible School or wherever they needed to go.
Milton McConnell tried to reach kids and help them in any way he could, taking them to school or finding them clothes.
"Whatever their needs were he'd take care of them," Belinda McConnell said, adding he'd be the one to go to school to take the fingerprints of kids for their school identification.
She recalled a little boy one day excitedly shouting out, "There's a policeman, a policeman," when he saw her dad.
"The people in the black community knew who he was," she said. "He was my idol."
On the day of her prom, when she was a senior, Belinda McConnell said her father kept asking her what time it was going to start, not providing any allusion to his presence there. So to her surprise when she showed up, there was her father, towering over everyone, and working as a chaperone — he frequently did security work in the community.
Milton McConnell's last day with the department was Oct. 23, 1970 — over 15 years since he joined. He died from a blood clot following a gall bladder surgery he had days before. He was 42 and his daughter had just turned 18.
Editor's note: This report is a feature on the first black male officer for the Rome Police Department. A feature on the first black female officer for the department will run in Monday's Rome-News Tribune.
Today's artwork is by Caroline Fletcher, a student at Armuchee Elementary.