The opioid epidemic is hitting Floyd County harder than all but four other Georgia counties, according to an early statistical analysis conducted by a law firm preparing to represent municipalities in a class-action lawsuit against manufacturers of the pain medications.
Rome attorney Bob Finnell said they worked with population figures and the number of prescriptions by county to get at percentages, to even out the calculations for rural and urban areas.
“We wanted to make population a nonfactor, to see where the real problem is,” he told the Floyd County Commission in a lengthy presentation last week.
The impact is most widespread in southeast Ware County, with a population of just over 36,000. That’s followed by Clarke, Coffee, Crisp and Floyd — with Gordon County at No. 6.
Cities and counties across the nation have been filing suits against drug companies, contending their marketing practices are aimed at boosting sales instead of based on sound medical practices. They’re also accused of ignoring “oversales” they’re supposed to report.
“Ninety-one people a day are dying from overdoses. The numbers are staggering across the United States,” Finnell said. “A 2013 study by the National Institutes of Health put the economic costs at $78.5 billion.”
Local jurisdictions bear the brunt of the costs, he said, with taxpayers funding increases for public safety, 911 centers, social services, coroner calls, courts and other functions.
Finnell has represented some of the entities, but the cases continue to escalate. In November, a federal panel bundled over 200 cases in 46 states as Multi-District Litigation and transferred them to one judge in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Ohio.
“We don’t intend to walk away,” Finnell said.
He contacted attorney Andy Davis of Brinson, Askew and Berry, who served as the lead counsel for a group of Georgia cities and counties in a successful class-action suit against online travel companies that were failing to pay sales taxes. Together, they’re assembling a similar suit to put before the Ohio judge.
Davis said three other groups already have gotten in touch with the firm to help them replicate their mechanism for the MDL suit, but they want to maintain their local base.
“It’s a crisis, and we do believe Rome and Floyd County ought to be in the forefront leading the state,” Davis said.
He likened it to the years-long class-action suit against the big tobacco companies, but he noted that the states won those awards and “we all know that taxpayers really paid the price.”
Finnell said the case would be on a contingency basis, so there would be no out-of-pocket expenses for the cities and counties. They’ll each need to provide more local data, however — such as jail records and medical costs — to fold into the litigation.
The Rome City Commission has made no formal announcement that they’re joining, as yet, but a resolution passed last week declaring the crisis a public nuisance also says they shall.
Floyd County Commissioners took the legal step of declaring the epidemic a public nuisance, but their resolution says they may join. Commission Chair Rhonda Wallace said they hope to meet in the coming week with representatives of Floyd and Redmond Regional medical centers, Harbin Clinic and local pharmacists.
“When you file a lawsuit, you can touch a lot of people you didn’t intend to,” Wallace said. “We have a strong medical community here and we want to make sure we’re all on the same page.”
Wallace said there’s no doubt prescription opioid abuse is escalating and the fallout is registering locally. Nationally, the death rate from synthetic opioids rose 72.2 percent from 2014 to 2015 and doubled from 2015 to 2016, according to the Georgia Health Policy Center.
Monitoring programs don’t appear to be working, Wallace said, and someone should be held accountable.
“We’re all very interested in making this a top priority,” she said about the county commission. “At the same time, we value our medical community and want to get their opinion. I’m sure they’re working on something, too. This is a top priority for the whole country.”
Finnell and Davis said the Ohio MDL targets about 50 of the top pharmaceutical companies, and there is no plan to expand it. The companies, as well as the plaintiffs, want to limit the extent of the ruling “and move on,” Finnell noted.
County Manager Jamie McCord said the online travel suit ruling — that local hotel/motel taxes are owed on each sale — worked out well for the county.
“We didn’t get a lot of (back taxes) but they’re paying everything now,” he said.