Every month in Utah, 23 people die from prescription drug overdoses, according to the Utah Department of Health. The main culprit is opioids, a class of drugs used for pain relief that have addictive properties — and Grand County will soon involve itself in a lawsuit against manufacturers in a response to the drug abuse crisis.
The county will sue based on the “the fraudulent information that [pharmaceutical companies] put out regarding their product that’s had a huge impact on counties and governments and families and people,” according to Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald.
“All counties in Utah are currently joining in on the class-action lawsuits to try and recover what they’ve spent ... on rehab and medical,” Fitzgerald said.
Karen Dolan, the executive director of Four Corners Behavioral Health, described the opioid crisis as, “a perfect storm.”
While opioids were once illegal throughout the U.S., Dolan said, in the late 1980s and early 1990s medical associations noted that doctors were not effectively treating pain. Pharmaceutical companies began advertising that patients in real pain would not get addicted to opioids, and doctors began prescribing more of them to their patients. At the same time, heroin — another opioid — became more available in the U.S. Doctors would realize that patients were addicted, cut them off and then patients would turn to heroin as an alternative, Dolan said.
Dolan oversees Four Corners’ operations in Carbon, Emery and Grand counties.
“Carbon and Emery have a very serious opioid problem, Grand less so,” Dolan said. “San Juan and Grand are lower compared to the rest of the state. However, it’s still a significant problem.”
Will Barnhardt, assistant director of Grand County Emergency Medical Services, confirmed that the opioid crisis is not as bad in Grand County as elsewhere.
“We actually don’t have many opioids here. The drugs of use we tend to see are more methamphetamines and more stimulants … off the top of my head, we’ve had one bad opioid overdose in the last year but they’re not a huge issue here like they are nationally,” Barnhardt said.
The crisis has hit other areas of Utah hard. Carbon County has three times the national average of pain medication prescription rates, Dolan said. In Utah, the overdose death rate is fourth in the nation.
Grand County has escaped the worst of the epidemic thanks to a couple of factors, Dolan said.
“I think Carbon and Emery are on … a major interstate. Moab’s a little more out of the way,” said Dolan. “Also Carbon and Emery have a lot of blue collar people that work: Coal miners and power company workers, and they hurt their bodies. So there’s a lot of doctors that prescribe pain pills and then once the pain pill arrangement doesn’t work anymore, because they are addicted and bugging their doctors, the doctors then cut them off and they turn to heroin.”
Dolan noted that good medication exists to help anyone who is struggling with addiction to opioids.
“Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease just like hypertension or diabetes or many forms of cancer. It’s one disease that our society believes people should do without any medicine,” said Dolan. “With mental illness, no one would expect someone to not take an antidepressant if they’re depressed or an anti-psychotic if they’re schizophrenic because we have good medicines to treat mental illness now … with addiction, especially opiate addiction, we have some good medicines now that have come out that … although not perfect, they can really help.”
Fitzgerald presented the possibility of joining a lawsuit to the county council on March 20 and the council voted unanimously to join.
“I haven’t been terribly interested in the class actions because a lot of times you join a class and everyone at the top makes millions and millions and millions of dollars and ... you may get a check for 16 cents,” said Fitzgerald.
However, this suit is a little bit different. Fitzgerald said the county’s approach would involve filing in local courts, “to keep more control over it and to attempt to get a better return.”
The firm Durham, Jones and Pinegar from Salt Lake City would represent Grand County. The firm is also representing other counties in the state, including San Juan County, Fitzgerald told the council.
Fitzgerald said the lawsuit would not cost the county anything. Instead, the law firm will take 35 percent of whatever is recovered in court, plus court costs.
Any money Grand County receives will likely go back to the county’s general fund, Fitzgerald said, “but you would probably want to earmark it for money we’ve been spending on Four Corners ... treatment [or] drug court.”
“I think this is a no-brainer and a really, really good thing,” said Council Vice Chair Curtis Wells.