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Cabell, Huntington at driver's wheel after Ohio opioid settlement

HUNTINGTON — A $260 million court settlement reached by two Ohio counties with four drug distributors and one drugmaker in the hours before a federal trial was to begin Monday in Cleveland, Ohio, now places Cabell County and the city of Huntington in the spotlight among a group of 2,600 other similar cases that have yet to be resolved.

The two-county settlement came just three days after negotiations for a universal settlement broke down among several parties Friday. In that case, the “Big Three” drug distributors had offered $18 billion to be paid over 18 years to settle every lawsuit, but was divided based on population, which attorneys say caused any potential deal to fall apart.

The Huntington and Cabell County lawsuits specifically argue a combination of intense marketing, national pharmacies failing to report suspicious activity, and middlemen controlling pricing between drug companies and pharmacies all contributed to the drug epidemic in the area.

Cabell County and Huntington, who were two of the first among local and state governments to file lawsuits against drug companies, had been in line to go to trial second to the two Ohio counties, and could now be the first, although settlement talks are expected to continue. Preliminary discovery exchange was expected be underway by Monday.

The allegations

The lawsuits argue manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies and pharmacy benefit managers breached their duty to monitor, detect, investigate, refuse and report suspicious orders of prescription opiates coming into the states over the past several years — a duty the lawsuits claim companies have under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

The local governments seek costs to help get people into recovery, as well as recovering costs spent by the governments on responding to the opioid epidemic. The plaintiffs are also seeking money for future recovery.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration data showed from 2006 to the end of 2016, 853.5 million prescription pain pills were distributed in West Virginia. Of those, 65 million — or about 96 per person per year — were distributed in Cabell County, with millions more going to surrounding counties.

Although now in decline, West Virginia suffered 1,017 overdose deaths in 2017, compared with 890 in 2016, 735 in 2015 and 629 in 2014. Cabell County led the state with 157 in 2017, 92 in 2016, and 82 in 2015.

A 2017 report by the White house Council of Economic Advisors states the opioid epidemic has cost the country more than $500 billion and killed more than 400,000 people.

Landmark opioid trial delayed after $320M settlements made

Cuyahoga and Summit counties in Ohio, which were set to be the first to go to trial Monday, reached a $260 million dollar settlement with the “Big Three” distributors — AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson — to pay $215 million, while Drug maker Teva would contribute $20 million in cash and $20 million worth of suboxone, a drug used to treat opioid addiction.

Small distributor Henry Schein also announced Monday it will settle with Summit County for $1.25 million. It was not named in Cuyahoga’s lawsuit.

In the months leading up to the trial date, the counties had settled for about $66 million, to be paid in a combination of cash in drugs. Endo International will pay $10 million, with an additional $1 million of free Adrenalin and Vasostrict. Allegra will pay $5 million, Mallinckrodt $24 million in cash and $6 million in products, and Johnson & and Johnson will pay $20.4 million, with $5 million going toward legal costs and $5.4 going toward nonprofit addiction programs.

The new settlements, combined with settlements with five other drug makers made previously, means only one defendant remains scheduled to go to trial Monday, the pharmacy chain Walgreens. U.S. District Judge Dan Polster said the new plan is for Walgreens and other pharmacies to go to trial within six months if settlements cannot be reached.

Plaintiffs’ Executive Committee co-leads Paul J. Hanly Jr., of Simmons Hanly Conroy; Paul T. Farrell Jr., of Greene Ketchum, Farrell, Bailey & Tweel, LLP in Huntington; and Joe Rice of Motley Rice LLC said the counties had tirelessly investigated, litigated and prepared for trial.

“In doing so, the communities revealed facts about the roles of the opioid industry that created and fueled the opioid epidemic,” they said in a statement. “Additionally, through the discovery process, we learned that this country’s pharmacy system has played a greater role in the opioid epidemic than previously realized.”

They plan to move forward with a trial against the pharmacy litigants while also working toward a global settlement for all cases.

Universal settlement falls apart at last minute

The proposed universal settlement, which broke down Friday, would have been divided by population — not how hard an area had been affected by the opioid epidemic — and offered $8.9 million a year to West Virginia — 30% of which would be split between a fund set up for the attorney general and counties and 70% of which would go toward a recovery fund.

However, in that proposal, the “Big Three” argued past settlements by the Attorney General’s Office meant West Virginia forfeited its right to the attorney general and recovery funds, leaving just 15%, or $1.3 million to be divided among all 55 West Virginia counties by their population.

Cabell County, for example, would receive just $135,000 per year, with Kanawha County receiving about $200,000.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, plaintiff attorneys Paul Farrell and Rusty Webb, as well as Huntington Mayor Steve Williams were all in agreement that the settlement was not one the West Virginia governments wanted.

Others say the settlement fell apart because of attorney fees, which Farrell called a fabrication.

With the first trial cases being settled for the most part, global settlement talks are expected to resume quickly.

Huntington parties react to settlement talks

Williams attended Friday’s settlement hearings and was able to speak to the court about how the opioid epidemic had affected the Huntington area.

“I said that I wanted our day in court,” he said. “The citizens of our city and people in West Virginia are saying ‘how did this happen to us. How could this happen to us.’ I want the facts to come out. I really want us to be able to look those CEOs right in the eye.”

Webb, who represents the city of Huntington, said he appreciates the mayor’s spirit in wanting to go to trial.

“A few people were allowed to speak to the entire panel Friday,” he said. “Williams did an excellent job. He has become the symbol for the small city fight in this country.”

Williams said he is against settling, but he would accept one that helps make sure the city is able to deal with the fallout of the opioid epidemic over the next 40 years.

“If there was a settlement that said there was not another opioid tablet that would ever be sold and a miracle that not another gram of heroin was distributed, we would still be dealing with the fallout of this mess for the next four decades,” he said. “We need to be compensated looking forward at what has to be done to dig ourselves out of this.”

Webb said the proposed settlement was disproportionate to where the opioid epidemic was felt and left the small states out of luck. He said Farrell, who represents several West Virginia counties and is co-lead attorney of the more than 2,600 cases, should be commended for not stepping down at the hearing.

“He let a group of about six or seven of us into the meeting with the attorneys general and sat down a looked them in the eye and said this does not give West Virginia the money they need,” he said. ”That was a proud moment for me.”

Webb said he believes with the new updates in the litigation, three tracks will now form — the Huntington, Cabell County litigation track; a global settlement track and a Huntington, Cabell County track. While their eye is on a trial, settlement talks are ongoing with Monday’s settlement now at the center.

“What the plaintiffs are doing right now are extracting how did the defendants get to this number and how would this apply to the rest of the country,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.

Unity Walk kicks off homecoming week at MU

HUNTINGTON — Marshall University kicked off homecoming week Monday with a celebration of the differences that make campus shine at the 8th annual Unity Walk.

Starting at the Rec Center, a herd of students representing the numerous clubs and student organizations on campus, including athletics, walked down 3rd Avenue and around to the Memorial Student Center plaza. The walk was led by the Marching Thunder drum line.

With divisiveness being felt across the country, College of Liberal Arts Dean Robert Bookwalter said it’s more important than ever to celebrate the diversity on campus.

“None of us grow without the contributions of others,” he said.

Student Body President Stephanie Rogner and Vice President Anna Williams echoed Bookwalter, saying the unity walk highlighted their community spirit while celebrating that community’s differences.

“But what brought us all together here is our love for Marshall,” Williams said.

Marshall softball coach Megan Smith said she chose to come to Marshall because of its family spirit.

“The family feel crosses all organizations, not just athletics,” Smith said.

Maurice Cooley, director of Student Affairs, said he thinks of the Unity Walk as a family reunion of sorts.

“I never imagined my family would be so big,” he said. “...We are your family. We will nurture you. We will support you. We will go out of our way to teach you. We will give you the skills to be the leaders of the world.”

The Unity Walk also featured introductions of the homecoming court. Mr. and Miss Marshall will be announced at halftime of Saturday’s football game.

Homecoming week continues with a full schedule of activities, including a campus office decoration contest. The theme of this year’s homecoming is “Marshall and Beyond,” aimed at celebrating the upward trajectory of the university. Sons of Marshall and NASA engineers Bob Lang and Gary Ray will serve as co-grand marshals of the homecoming parade, set for Thursday.

It all comes together Saturday at the football game against Western Kentucky University, at which the university has promised a ”historic” announcement.

Campus events are sponsored by the Marshall University Alumni Association, Student Government Association, Office of Student Activities, Office of Intercultural Affairs, Marshall Athletics, University Communications and various campus affiliates.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

Forum attendees offer input on battling drug epidemic

While West Virginia works on a plan to combat the drug epidemic, more than 100 people met Monday evening at the University of Charleston to share feedback, thoughts and some concerns with the Department of Health and Human Resources’ current draft.

Through small table discussions, attendees took part in conversations facilitated by state representatives spanning from the Division of Corrections to the Bureau for Public Health. They were encouraged to choose two top strategies from nine categories for the state to prioritize in the final version of the West Virginia Substance Use Response Plan.

“Help us prioritize,” said Bob Hansen, director of the state Office of Drug Control Policy. “It’s important to look at what’s important to start in the first year.”

The finalized plan is due on Jan. 1, 2020, and will lay out initiatives led by the government to pursue over a three-year period.

Many in attendance Monday came from outside Charleston — including Huntington, Fayette County and Logan — and work directly with those who suffer from addiction.

“This, in my opinion, is a good first step in helping to see — then fill — the gaps and barriers people who suffer from [substance use disorder] experience in getting help every day,” said Joe Young, a recovery coach at Help For West Virginia, in Huntington. “When people come together from all kinds of backgrounds, we’re able to find solutions and consider those different circumstances.”

Young said he had suffered from addiction, going in and out of recovery for 17 years. Now, he said, he spends his time helping connect others who struggle with similar circumstances get the help they need to enter recovery, but it’s not easy.

“You see a lot of deaths on the streets, a lot of people who could have been helped by some of the things they’re talking about in here [the draft plan],” Young said.

As someone who works daily with those struggling with addiction, Young said, he certainly thinks there should be room at the table for people in recovery, or even those in active addiction, to share their thoughts on what could work for a statewide plan.

“Some of the people who don’t have experiences firsthand [with addiction] need someone to stand next to them who has, sometimes,” Young said. “They need to ask each other questions, and come to an understanding. Ask them what they need, what could help them.”

The draft plan was put together by the Governor’s Council on Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment and the DHHR’s Office of Drug Control Policy. Hansen said there are people involved in the process who have firsthand experience with addiction. He also said there are plans in the works to set up community meetings where those in the addiction community can express their thoughts and concerns with the plan’s policymakers before it’s finalized.

So far, the drafted plan includes 18 goals comprised of 65 strategies, which vary in detail. Those in attendance on Monday — which was the third of six public forums planned across the state and the closest to the Huntington area — were asked to indicate 18 top priorities for the state to pursue based on five factors: impact, cost, scalability, sustainability and community acceptance.

At small tables set up throughout a room in UC’s ballroom, they asked questions about specifics of strategies and discussed them with others at the table. For an hour, they were encouraged to switch tables every 10 minutes and join other discussions.

On a yellow sheet, those who participated in the discussions were asked to rationalize why they chose the priorities they did, and turn it in to members of the DHHR.

Hansen said the feedback will be analyzed by DHHR employees and will help inform the final plan released by the DHHR and the Governor’s Council.

For Lindsay Acree, who works at UC’s School of Pharmacy, and Charles “CK” Babcock, who works at Marshall’s School of Pharmacy, it felt good to see the state taking a serious interest and attempt at facing the issue of drug addiction and dependence.

Acree and Babcock work throughout the state implementing naloxone programs in community organizations. They work directly with first responders, as well as the recovery community.

“It’s great to see that there’s an emphasis being put on responding to this, and not just opioids, but the drug epidemic in its entirety,” Acree said.

“And it’s about time, too,” Babcock added.

Acree said that, by looking at things like tobacco use and including other drugs, like meth, she believes there’s a chance to implement a plan or program that will benefit West Virginia well past the opioid epidemic.

“Drug habits are changing — we’re seeing more and more people use meth and other drugs, so we need something that can be used as a response to that, too,” Acree said. “It seems like they’re considering that.”

For those who cannot attend a public forum, feedback on the draft plan may be submitted via an online form at https://helpandhopewv.org/odcp.