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Clark County may sue to recover opioid epidemic expenses

Updated December 1, 2017 - 5:06 pm

Clark County commissioners on Tuesday will consider suing pharmaceutical companies to recover money spent fighting opioid addiction and paying for its consequences.

If commissioners authorize the district attorney’s office to pursue litigation, Clark County would join states, cities and counties across the U.S. suing manufacturers and distributors of painkillers.

Addiction and overdoses linked to opioids — which run the gamut from prescription pills to heroin — have become an epidemic nationwide and close to home.

“Since 2008 more people have died in Clark County from an opioid overdose than motor vehicle accidents or firearms,” said Kathryn Barker, an epidemiologist with the Southern Nevada Health District. “In Clark County about 85 percent of the fatal overdoses are from prescription painkillers.”

Clark County's opioid toll

Nationally, 91 people die a day from an opioid overdose, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

From 2000 through 2015, more than 4,000 people died in Clark County from opioid overdoses, according to the health district. And major hospitals in Clark County have charged patients close to $110 million for treatment related to opioid abuse.

“The overprescribing (of opioids) … impacts our homeless population. They impact our jail. They impact our court system. They impact our social services,” Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said. “Those are all costs linked to addiction.”

President Donald Trump declared opioid addiction a public health emergency in October. Gov. Last year Brian Sandoval hosted a State Summit on Prescription Drug Abuse, a group that has since evolved into the Opioid State Action Accountability Taskforce.

In Southern Nevada, the epidemic’s costs have fallen heavily on the county, which funds the Metropolitan Police Department and University Medical Center of Southern Nevada and provides social services in a region that’s home to more than 2 million Nevadans.

Giunchigliani and Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak, both seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, requested the discussion about a potential lawsuit.

“The citizens of Clark County have suffered greatly as a result of this opioid epidemic, and I think we need to hold these drug manufacturers accountable,” Sisolak said. “I think they have misled not only the doctors and pharmacists but also the patients in terms of the addictive nature of these narcotics, and we’ve got a lifetime of suffering as a result of that.”

AG’s office uncertain

Clark County is not the first jurisdiction in Nevada to consider suing the drug makers.

Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve this year announced she wants to sue opioid manufacturers and distributors. State Attorney General Adam Laxalt has urged the city not to do so, arguing that such a lawsuit could undermine an ongoing multi-state investigation into how those companies contributed to the opioid epidemic. Nevada and the other participating states hope to reach a financial settlement with drug manufacturers.

A document prepared for the Clark County Commission meeting on Tuesday says the county’s “prospective lawsuit will not conflict with or interfere with any efforts of the attorney general.”

Still, AG spokeswoman Monica Moazez said in a statement Thursday that her office believes “Nevada is best positioned in the bipartisan multi-state effort of 40 attorneys general.”

“We hope that any lawsuits by local jurisdictions do not unintentionally undermine our ongoing bipartisan investigation,” Moazez wrote.

At least one manufacturer may be pursuing a settlement with the attorneys general. Bloomberg reported Thursday that Purdue Pharma LP, the maker of OxyContin, announced this week that it is in “negotiations” with the states.

Moazez said the attorney general’s office could not discuss any settlement negotiations.

County staff declined an interview about their potential lawsuit, but the meeting document states that the district attorney’s office has requested the commission’s permission to file a lawsuit with the help of Las Vegas personal injury law firm Eglet Prince.

The firm last month filed a class-action lawsuit in Clark County District Court against a manufacturer of bump stocks — a device that speeds the rate of fire of semi-automatic weapons — following the Route 91 Harvest festival mass shooting.

Eglet Prince has agreed to represent the county at no upfront cost, county spokesman Erik Pappa said. The firm is requesting up to 25 percent of any damages won. Eglet Prince did not respond to a request for an interview.

Contact Michael Scott Davidson at sdavidson@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Follow @davidsonlvrj on Twitter.

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