Friday, April 07, 2023

Oconee County Joins Settlement Of $20 Billion Nationwide Opioid Suit

***County Officials Say Drug Problem Increasing***

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners voted last month to accept a settlement under which drug manufacturers Allergan and Teva and CVS, Walgreens and Walmart pharmacies have agreed to pay $20 billion nationwide to settle an opioid mass tort lawsuit.

The state of Georgia will receive $181 million, and Oconee County will receive a yet-to-be determined part of that amount.

As a result of earlier settlements, Oconee County has received $77,739, and Oconee County Attorney Daniel Haygood estimates the county will receive more than $100,000 and maybe twice that amount when all the settlements are completed.

While the settlement amounts for the county are relatively small, Haygood said, it would be a mistake to think Oconee County has not been affected by the epidemic resulting from the manufacture, distribution, and over-prescription of the drug.

As if to make that point, the lead item in The Oconee Enterprise summary of the Oconee County Sheriff’s Report on page A2 of this week’s edition is about the theft of 90 Oxycodone pills from the pharmacy at St. Gabriel of Athens assisted living facility off Virgil Langford Road. Oxycodone is a highly addictive type of opioid.

An even more dramatic example of the opioid epidemic’s local impact took place on Feb. 18 when Watkinsville Officer Tristan Walker was processing seized narcotics from arrests that evening in the city’s Harris Shoals Park.

Walker was exposed to what is believed to have been an airborne fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid, and had an immediate life-threatening reaction.

An officer from the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office was able to administer Narcan, used to treat narcotic overdose in an emergency situation. Walker was rushed to the Athens Piedmont Emergency Room for life-saving treatment.

Decision In 2018

At its meeting on Feb. 6 of 2018, County Attorney Haygood had recommended to the Oconee County Board of Commissioners that it join in multi-district litigation against the manufactures of opioids and others involved in distribution of the drug.

The Athens law firm of Blasingame, Burch, Garrard, and Ashley was available to handle the litigation for the county, he said.

“Some pretty bright lawyers have figured out that distributors of opioids, manufacturers of opioids, and some leading figures who advocated the use of opioids--influencers of public opinion--all probably have some liability,” Haygood said.

“I think the underlying matter is right,” Haygood said. “I think there needs to be some recovery for counties and cities across the country.”

The Board unanimously adopted a resolution authorizing a contract with Blasingame, Burch, Garrard, and Ashley, which agreed to cover all of the costs of the suit, including those of Haygood as he works on the case.

Watkinsville Discussion

Watkinsville City Manager Sharyn Dickerson said in an email on April 5 that the city did not join the case back in 2018 and, as a consequence, is not a party to the recent settlements.

“The terms of the settlement agreement included a requirement that the funds received be spent to mitigate opioid use in the community,” she said.

Since the agreement with the county specifies that public health services within the city limits are the responsibility of the county, she said, “the city does not play an active role in delivering public health services to our citizens.”

The city would have had to begin delivering health services to use funds from any settlement, she said.

Watkinsville Police Chief Shannon Brock said the incident involving Officer Walker has had consequences for the city.

The Police Department has had to create new procedures and find new space in the police station to minimize the danger to officers in similar situations in the future, he said.

Nature Of Settlement

According to an overview the county received from the litigators for the most recent settlement, agreements “have been reached that would resolve opioid litigation brought by states, local political subdivisions, and specific districts.”

That litigation was directed at two pharmaceutical manufacturers, Teva and Allergan, and at three pharmacies, CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart.

The settlement totals more than $20 billion, with approximately $17 billion to be used by “participating states and subdivisions to remediate and abate the impacts of the opioid crisis.”

Teva is pay up to $3.34 billion over 13 years and to provide either $1.2 billion of its generic version of the drug Narcan over 10 years or an agreed upon cash equivalent over 13 years.

Allergan is to pay up to $2.02 billion over 7 years.

CVS is to pay up to $4.9 billion over 10 years, Walgreens is to pay up to $5.52 billion over 15 years, and Walmart is to pay up to $2.74 billion in 2023.

The settlements also contain injunctive relief governing opioid marketing, sale, distribution, and/or dispensing practices.

According to a statement released by Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, Geogia had joined the settlements “to resolve allegations that the companies contributed to the opioid crisis.”

Earlier Settlements

Oconee County also has participated in two earlier settlements.

One was with drug manufacturer Janssen, a wholly owned Belgian subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson, and has resulted in committed payments of $56,814 to the county.

The other was with distributors McKessen Corporation, AmerisourceBergen Corporation, and Cardinal Health Inc. for $20,924.

While the total so far, without the most recent settlement, is only $77,739, Haygood said it is impossible to know what the outcome will be of future settlements.

“The total number when it is all said and done? Who knows.” Haygood said in a telephone conversation on March 9, two days after the Board voted to pass a resolution stating that it “agrees to participate in the New Opioid Settlement.”

“These settlements keep coming up,” Haygood continued. “It is going to be, I think, when it is over with, a few hundred thousand dollars.”

How Money Will Be Used

The earlier settlement allows the county to use the settlement money for a long list of treatments and services.

Included are purchase of drugs to reverse opioid overdoses, distribution of medications for treatment of opioid addiction, and treatment for pregnant and postpartum women with addiction.

It also includes expansion of treatment of neonatal abstinence syndrome, most often caused when a woman takes drugs called opioids during pregnancy.

It also includes support of people in treatment and recovery.

John Daniell, Oconee County Board of Commissioner Chair, said in an email this morning (April 7), that the county was still exploring how it will best use money from the settlements.

“We will be working with the Sheriff's Office and Oconee Fire Rescue to determine the best use of the funds based on the possible uses defined in the settlement agreements,” he said.

Impact Locally

When Blasingame, Burch, Garrard and Ashley provided Oconee County a litigation summary back in 2018, it presented data from the Centers for Disease and Control on the rate of opioid prescriptions in the county from 2006 through 2016.

Prescriptions grew from 73.2 per 100 persons in 2006 to 76.2 per 100 persons in 2008. The rate began to fall after 2008 to 63.2 per 100 people in 2016.

The cost to the county of the resulting opioid epidemic “are hard to quantify,” Commission Chair Daniell told me in an email message on April 3.

“The Sheriff's Office and Oconee Fire Rescue respond to opioid related calls every week,” he said. “I believe every family in Oconee County is touched by drug related issues.”

In an email message the next day, Oconee County Sheriff James Hale said “I can tell you that the cases that we have here in Oconee are on the rise.”

“I believe the biggest impact that we have seen is to the way we as law enforcement handle business,” Hale continued. “We have to be super careful as to how we handle suspected drug cases due to the possibility of exposure.”

“All of our deputies are trained on how to administer Narcan to a person suspected of overdose,” he said. “They are also trained on how to recognize opioid overdose so that they can self-aid or buddy-aid if there is an exposure.”

“Actually, without a doubt, it’s going to be your next pandemic,” Watkinsville Police Chief Brock said. “Fentanyl is being brought into the country endlessly. Just micrograms of fentanyl will cause a person to suffer and absolutely die. It has made dangerous situations even more dangerous.”

Harris Shoals Incident

The incident at Harris Shoals began at approximately 7 p.m. on Feb. 18 when Officer Walker, on routine patrol, conducted an after-hour security check of the park, according to a report prepared by Deputy Police Chief Todd Tetterton.

Resolution Approved 3/7/2023

Walker observed a parked vehicle with two occupants, and, upon approaching the vehicle, he detected the odor of marijuana, according to Tetterton’s report.

A probable cause search of the vehicle was conducted, Tetterton wrote.

“At the completion of the search, a quantity of marijuana, heroin, mushrooms, methanphetamines, fentanyl, scales, baggies, test kits, Narcan, and a large sum of U.S. currency was recovered from the vehicle,” he wrote.

Jennna Engelson, 25, of Danielsville, and Patrick Gage, 22 of Arnoldsville, were arrested and transported to the nearby Oconee County Jail, where they were booked on numerous felony drug related charges.

Tetterton said on Thursday that the two have since made bond and are at large.

Processing Contraband

Walter returned to the nearby police station after the arrest of Engelson and Gage.

“While conducting testing and packaging of the seized narcotics in the Watkinsville Police Department Office,” Tetterton wrote in his report, Walker “was exposed to what is believed to be airborne fentanyl, which resembled a puff of smoke which was emitted from one of the baggies containing narcotics.”

“Officer Walker had an immediate and severe reaction to the drug, falling to the floor, sweating and shaking and losing consciousness,” according to the report. “Walker was in a life threatening situation and was administered a dose of Narcan” by Sgt. Wade Higgenbotham from the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office.

Walker was then transported to Piedmont Athens Regional for treatment. He was released after several hours.

Walker was able to return to work a few days later, Tetterton reported.

In a telephone conversation on April 6, Police Chief Brock said the incident changed departmental practice.

“We didn’t have an actual place that was ideal for doing what he was doing,” Brock said of Walker’s processing of the contraband. “He was using a space that is a multi-purpose space that serves many things.”

“Since then we actually implemented some practices and protocol that require officers to be doing this kind of stuff when a second officer is present so if there is the occasion that something was to happen there is somebody there to help,” Brock said.

“They (now) are also supposed to use universal precautions, such as face shields and masks and gloving up,” Brock said. Walker “was gloved up fine but he didn’t have a mask on.”

“And we actually created a work station designed specifically for the packaging and handling of evidence and storage,” Brock said.

Conversation With Haygood

“These are pretty good settlements,” County Attorney Haygood said in our telephone conversation on March 9 after the Board agreed to participate in the settlement.

“It is as good as you are going to get without having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars going out on your own, and you are not going to get that much,” he said.

“So is really a matter of we’re riding the train and trusting that the folks that are steering the train are doing a good job on it, because we can’t afford to do it on our own,” he said.

“The total number when it is all said and done? Who knows, because these settlements keep coming up. It is going to be, I think, when it is over with, a few hundred thousand dollars.”

“I had no idea that we were using Narcan frequently in the county,” Haygood said. “but apparently it’s much more common than you and I would think living in the bubbles that we live in.”

Investigation of the theft of Oxycodone pills at St. Gabriel of Athens is ongoing.

1 comment:

Bill Mayberry said...

Yes, narcotics are addictive, especially oxycodone and fentanyl.
Who carries the major blame and accountability?
Plainly, clearly, and poorly discussed are the actions of the addicts.
When I first opened my Family Practice in 1982, they came out of the woodwork en masse secondary to the info-network of those who procure the drugs.
The best advice I ever got was to build the practice I wanted to have
from the beginning, no matter how much the addicts attempted to bribe me.
And they sure did try.
W.S. Mayberry, MD