Minnesota's 87 counties are considering litigation against opioid manufacturers and distributors for being complicit and complacent in the opioid addiction epidemic.
Hubbard County will likely become one of them.
County Attorney Jonathan Frieden shared information about the lawsuit to county commissioners at their Nov. 21 meeting.
"There has been discussion by all the county attorneys regarding the possibility to be a plaintiff in opioid litigation and taking action to hold accountable the distributors and manufacturers," he said. "The basic legal premise behind it is that Vicodin, Oxycontin — opiods — should be used for short-term, post-surgical pain. They have not been marketed or distributed for short-time pain solely. They've been marketed and distributed by certain companies for long-term chronic pain."
The lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies that make synthetic opioids is an effort to recover some of the social and public costs from the drug addiction crisis that is rocking the nation.
Opioids and related drugs killed more than 52,000 people across the U.S. in 2015, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of the deaths involved common prescription opioids such as OxyContin or Vicodin, or related drugs such as heroin and fentanyl. People with addictions often take whichever of the drugs they can get cheapest and easiest.
In recent months news reports have surfaced that appear to show pharmaceutical manufacturers knew of the addiction potential and still relentlessly marketed their products despite the dangers.
"There's a number of firms that are pursuing this," Frieden said. "My office received information from a New York firm. Nobody in the state is going with that firm. It looks like Hennepin County, at this point, had a meeting with four different firms and voted to go with Briol & Benson, a firm out of Minneapolis. They're a great firm."
Dakota County selected a different law firm, as did Ramsey and Washington counties, he continued.
Frieden would like to speak with the firms to "ultimately see what my opinion is."
"Up here, outstate, most counties have not made a decision and I don't foresee that being a major issue given that some of the bigger counties of the state have jumped into this litigation," he said.
There is an ongoing federal lawsuit as well.
The only downside to not making a decision by the end of November is that the county will not have a seat at an upcoming federal conference, Frieden noted; however, some of the larger counties will be representing Minnesota at that meeting.
"Basically, I wanted to put this on your radar that this is going on. It's pretty unanimous by county attorneys that this is a good idea. It's not going to be out-of-pocket for us. All of these firms have the same fee agreement, which is 25 percent of any recovery. They will front all of the costs for disclosure, discovery, which is not a small amount of money, obviously," Frieden said. "What it would cost us, potentially, is if we got to the damages part and some of our employees would need to meet with attorneys and articulate where our damages are as a county. That's going to be Social Services and our treatment costs and out-of-home placement costs for kids because parents are addicted to opioids. It's going to be the county sheriff and costs to incarcerate individuals who are addicted."
The county might lose some productivity, but not have out-of-pocket expenses, he said.
County Commissioner Cal Johannsen reported that Sanford Health in Bemidji has stated that 10 percent of the babies born at the hospital are addicted to opioid.
"That's pretty huge and Social Services are paying the bills because those babies are taken away from mom when they're born," Johannsen said. "You take Hennepin and Ramsey, I can't imagine how many babies they've having born addicted."
Since 1999, opioid prescriptions have increased four times and the cost eight times, Frieden said.
"I can tell you from a criminal prosecution standpoint we can be as tough as we want to be on street dealers and the people who are using, but if nothing is done about manufacturing and distribution, it's just not making an impact," Frieden.
County Commissioner Char Christianson inquired if Hubbard County would band forces with neighboring counties, like Beltrami County.
Yes, Frieden said, adding he has already spoken with Cass and Clearwater counties.
The lawyers "must have a pretty good feeling they're going to win," Johannsen observed.
"It's litigation, so you never know, but there's obviously a lot of firms jumping into this and there's a reason why," Frieden said.
County Commissioner Ed Smith asked if money won in the lawsuit would be given directly to the county departments
"If there were dollars realized and they came back to the county, would they come back to the various departments affected?" asked
"That's a great question," Frieden replied, adding it has been suggested to use the funds to set up statewide treatment facilities. All counties would have to agree.
The other option is that the funds return directly to each county.
The county board took no action taken at this time.
In other business, the county board did the following:
• Tabled discussion on a recycling center contract with the Hubbard County Developmental Achievement Center.
• Agreed to be a sponsoring agency for Hendrickson Township's application to the Minnesota Department of Transportation's Local Road Improvement Program. The township seeks state funding assistance for an improvement project on Old Cemetery Road.
• Approved a final payment of $87,244 to Tri-City Paving for overlay, reclamation and paving projects on CSAH 14 and 48.
• Granted to permission to sell a .68-acre strip of county-owned land through direct sale to people who purchased neighboring tax-forfeited land (TFL). A shed on the TFL encroached both parcels, explained County Land Commissioner Chip Lohmeier. The party purchased the TFL at the Oct. 13 county auction.
• Approved the low quote of $2,458 from ByteSpeed for the purchase of two switches and authorized Alpha Video to troubleshoot the board room's audio system as recommended by the Technology Committee.