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County joins legal case against opioid manufacturers

Carlton County is suing to get compensation for all the additional expenses — for the sheriff's department and county jail, the courts and health and human services — caused by opioid addiction.

On Monday, Feb. 26, Carlton County commissioners voted unanimously to pursue litigation against opioid manufacturers, joining a number of counties from around the state and other cities and counties units across the country. There is no fee to the county for joining the lawsuit; if the lawsuit is successful, the attorney fee would be 25 percent of the award.

County Attorney Thom Pertler described it as a "plus-plus."

"I think there are no drawbacks legally (to filing a lawsuit)," he said. "There's no risk to the county but there are potential benefits."

Pertler will serve as a liaison between Carlton County and the two partner law firms (Lockridge, Grindal & Naven and Gustafson, Gluck) that are filing lawsuits on behalf of at least 12 counties in Minnesota. The lawsuit will look at local impacts of opioid addiction, Pertler said, from overdoses to criminal activity to treatment costs.

"All things connected to the opioid epidemic," he added.

Attorneys from the law firms told the county board in January that the lawsuit alleges national pharmaceutical companies misrepresented the appropriate use of their highly addictive opioid pain medications.

Attorney David Asp said the drugs were approved for end of life pain management, but companies aggressively marketed them for chronic pain use, asserting that they were safe when they were, in fact, highly addictive.

Carlton County had some of the highest opioid prescription rates statewide from at least 2009 to 2014, hitting a peak in 2012, when the prescribing rate hit 113.3 per 100 people, more than one per person.

Prescription numbers are down now, but now "the consequences have increased," Asp said, noting the increase in numbers of people being treated for addiction, people dying from opioid abuse, child protection cases resulting from parent addiction and crimes related to people needing money to feed their addictions. The county is bearing the brunt of a lot of those costs.

Should the case succeed, the goal would be to use any money gained from the lawsuit to help the county pay its increased costs and set up a fund to help increase treatment availability and affordability, Asp told the board.

Although the attorneys were asking to represent Carlton County individually, cases filed by more than 220 cities and counties nationwide have been consolidated into a class action lawsuit currently being considered in Ohio. Carlton County would become part of that larger lawsuit, attorney Dave Goodwin told the commissioners.

Pertler said he expects the case to take a long time, possibly years. For now, the county is waiting to sign the contract to retain the two law firms.

In related news, Gov. Mark Dayton released opioid abuse proposals in February that, if passed by the Legislature, would annually invest about $12 million in high-impact strategies to treat and prevent opioid abuse, especially in communities that are disproportionately impacted by opioid addiction.

Dayton is also pushing for creation of an Opioid Stewardship Program, which would require that opioid manufacturers pay "a penny a pill" fee to fund a comprehensive prevention, treatment and recovery effort.