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Ashland gets into the Christmas spirit with annual parade

ASHLAND — The city of Ashland got into the Christmas spirit Tuesday with the annual parade put on as part of the Winter Wonderland of Lights.

Featuring a theme of “Christmas Miracle,” the parade wound its way through downtown Ashland led by grand marshal Montana Fouts.

The annual Winter Wonderland of Lights continues through Jan. 2, 2022, and features more than 800,000 lights on 60 holiday displays around Ashland Central Park. Other events, including train rides, visits with Santa and karaoke, also are planned as part of the festival. A complete schedule of events can be found online at www.winterwonderlandoflights.org.

The Winter Wonderland of Lights is open from dusk until 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and from dusk until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Admission is free.

The festival is a project of the Ashland Alliance.

Hospital, union to resume negotiations next week

HUNTINGTON — A temporary restraining order blocking certain actions by Cabell Huntington Hospital employees on the picket line will remain in place until a full evidence hearing can be held next month.

More than 900 Service Employees International Union (SEIU) members in the service and maintenance units went on strike Nov. 3 for the first time in 23 years. Cabell County Circuit Judge Alfred Ferguson issued a temporary restraining order Nov. 10 after the hospital filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to stop some actions by the striking workers.

The sides will return to the bargaining table next week in hopes of resolving the strike.

During a Tuesday hearing before Cabell Circuit Judge Christopher D. Chiles, union attorneys said the restraining order contained overly broad language, some of which could create free speech violations and make it difficult for them to follow.

The order prohibits those on the picket line from engaging in or encouraging loud and boisterous conduct, including the use of bullhorns, air horns, loud music and honking; using burn barrels near the Lung Health Center at 13th Avenue and Elm Street; blocking, obstructing or in any way hindering the use of handicap curb cuts; picketing, patrolling or gathering within 15 feet of the corner adjacent to the Emergency Department entrance; and interfering with traffic or hindering the free use of roads and streets.

It also prevents the picket line from doing anything to prevent the hospital from the delivery of medical services to the public; trespassing on hospital property; any direct communication with patients, visitors, employees, vendors and neutral trade union members entering and exiting the hospital; picketing within 20 feet of a reserve gate used by neutral trade union workers or communicating in any way with those using the reserve gate; and use of vulgarities, obscenities or threats to intimidate hospital employees, patients, neutral trade union members and members of the general public.

Last week, the hospital said people on the picket line were not following the order. Union representatives said they were following the order as laid out by Ferguson in court and said the hospital was using scare tactics to try to intimidate workers on the strike line.

Not using air horns and spacing issues was not an issue, but problems arise with general, non-specific language in the order. The union attorney said Tuesday she has a responsibility to tell her clients what would be a violation of the protective order, but she cannot do that with the current language.

Chiles set a full evidence hearing at 9 a.m. Friday, Dec. 10, for the sides to make their arguments for what a final restraining order should contain. The hearing is expected to last at least a day. The judge encouraged the attorneys to meet in the coming days to figure out where their opinions differ and what would need to be argued at that time.

As an example of their issue with the current temporary restraining order, union attorneys said the order requires striking workers to stay 15 feet from a curb, but it does not clarify where a curb starts or ends.

The attorneys also said the restraining order bars any communication with patients, but they questioned how striking workers were expected to stop patients from talking with them. Chiles said he did not see an issue if patients initiated conversations with the workers on strike. The hospital’s attorney agreed but said it would be a violation if they discussed the strike. The union representative said any such restrictions would be a First Amendment rights violation.

The union attorney said they received calls “all day, every day” about workers on strike violating the order, and without more specific language they would be returning to court on contempt allegations several times.

A hospital attorney said their problems with the striking workers not following the order are situations that should be common sense for them not to do. As an example, he said strike activity at one point made it hard for an ambulance to turn into the hospital.

The union representative adamantly denied that happened, stating the workers on strike care for the patients and are being peaceful.

Molly Frick, director of Human Resources for Cabell Huntington Hospital, said Tuesday the hospital and SEIU will return to the bargaining table Nov. 30. Frick said the hospital hopes the union will make a serious offer when resuming negotiations.

“All we have asked from the beginning is that members of the union’s service unit start making a reasonable contribution to their health care premiums,” she said. “For more than 70 years, Cabell Huntington Hospital has provided the region’s most generous health care plan for employees and their families and covered 100% of health care premiums.”

Sherri McKinney, SEIU District 1199 organizing director, said the hospital is negatively affecting people’s lives and livelihoods.

“The false allegation that the union is not wanting to come in good faith is beyond disingenuous,” McKinney said. “We have come each time with an abundance of good faith, willing to stay until a fair agreement was reached. We cannot say the same for Cabell negotiators.”

In turn, McKinney said the hospital is acting in bad faith by making an offer less than what union members had for decades.

Frick said the hospital is seeking service employees contribute, on average, less than 5% of the total cost of providing health care to the employees and their families. McKinney said the hospital’s offer would take away 10% of wages while increasing health care costs by 30% for part-time employees and 10% for the family plan, while reducing benefits and ending health care for retirees.

Jury holds pharmacies responsible for role in opioid crisis
A federal jury says CVS, Walgreens and Walmart pharmacies didn’t do enough to stop the flow of opioid pills into two Ohio counties

CLEVELAND — CVS, Walgreens and Walmart pharmacies recklessly distributed massive amounts of pain pills in two Ohio counties, a federal jury said Tuesday in a verdict that could set the tone for U.S. city and county governments that want to hold pharmacies accountable for their roles in the opioid crisis.

Lake and Trumbull counties blamed the three chain pharmacies for not stopping the flood of pills that caused hundreds of overdose deaths and cost each of the two counties about $1 billion, said their attorney, who in court compared the pharmacies’ dispensing to a gumball machine.

How much the pharmacies must pay in damages will be decided in the spring by a federal judge.

It’s the first time pharmacy companies completed a trial to defend themselves in a drug crisis that killed a half-million Americans over the past two decades.

The counties convinced the jury that the pharmacies played an outsized role in creating a public nuisance in the way they dispensed pain medication into their communities.

“The law requires pharmacies to be diligent in dealing drugs. This case should be a wake-up call that failure will not be accepted,” said Mark Lanier, an attorney for the counties.

“The jury sounded a bell that should be heard through all pharmacies in America,” Lanier said.

Attorneys for the pharmacy chains maintained they had policies to stem the flow of pills when their pharmacists had concerns and would notify authorities about suspicious orders from doctors. They also said it was doctors who controlled how many pills were prescribed for legitimate medical needs.

CVSHealth, Walgreen Co. and Walmart Inc. said they will appeal.

Walmart said in a statement that the counties’ attorneys sued “in search of deep pockets while ignoring the real causes of the opioid crisis — such as pill mill doctors, illegal drugs, and regulators asleep at the switch — and they wrongly claimed pharmacists must second-guess doctors in a way the law never intended and many federal and state health regulators say interferes with the doctor-patient relationship.”

Walgreens spokesperson Fraser Engerman characterized the case as an unsustainable effort “to resolve the opioid crisis with an unprecedented expansion of public nuisance law.”

The company “never manufactured or marketed opioids nor did we distribute them to the ‘pill mills’ and internet pharmacies that fueled this crisis,” Engerman said in a statement.

A statement from CVS spokesperson Mike DeAngelis noted: “As plaintiffs’ own experts testified, many factors have contributed to the opioid abuse issue, and solving this problem will require involvement from all stakeholders in our health care system and all members of our community.”

Two chains — Rite Aid and Giant Eagle — already had settled lawsuits with the two Ohio counties.

Lanier said during trial that the pharmacies were attempting to blame everyone but themselves.

The opioid crisis has overwhelmed courts, social services agencies and law enforcement in Ohio’s blue-collar corner east of Cleveland, leaving behind heartbroken families and babies born to addicted mothers, Lanier told jurors.

Roughly 80 million prescription painkillers were dispensed in Trumbull County alone between 2012 and 2016 — equivalent to 400 for every resident. In Lake County, some 61 million pills were distributed during that period.

The rise in physicians prescribing pain medications such as oxycodone and hydrocodone came as medical groups began recognizing that patients have the right to be treated for pain, Kaspar Stoffelmayr, an attorney for Walgreens, said at the opening of the trial.

The problem, he said, was “pharmaceutical manufacturers tricked doctors into writing way too many pills.”

The counties said pharmacies should be the last line of defense to prevent the pills from getting into the wrong hands.

They didn’t hire enough pharmacists and technicians or train them to stop that from happening and failed to implement systems that could flag suspicious orders, Lanier said.

The committee of lawyers for the local governments suing the drug industry in federal courts called Tuesday’s verdict “a milestone victory” and “overdue reckoning.”

“For decades, pharmacy chains have watched as the pills flowing out of their doors cause harm and failed to take action as required by law,” the committee said in a statement. “Instead, these companies responded by opening up more locations, flooding communities with pills, and facilitating the flow of opioids into an illegal, secondary market.”

The trial before U.S. District Judge Dan Polster in Cleveland was part of a broader constellation of about 3,000 federal opioid lawsuits consolidated under the judge’s supervision. Other cases are moving ahead in state courts.

Kevin Roy, chief public policy officer at Shatterproof, an organization that advocates for solutions to addiction, said the verdict could lead pharmacies to follow the path of major distribution companies and some drugmakers that have reached nationwide settlements of opioid cases worth billions. So far, no pharmacy has reached a nationwide settlement.

“It’s a signal that the public, at least in select places, feels that there’s been exposure and needs to be remedied,” Roy said.

The government claims against drugmakers, distributors and pharmacies hinge on state and local public nuisance laws.

Roy noted that courts haven’t been consistent on whether those laws apply to such cases. “There’s been a variety of different decisions lately that should give us reason to be cautious about what this really means in the grand scheme,” he said.

Two recent rulings went against the theory. More cases are heading toward rulings.

Trials against drugmakers in New York and distribution companies in Washington state are underway. A trial of claims against distribution companies in West Virginia wrapped up, but the judge hasn’t given a verdict.

Earlier in November, a California judge ruled in favor of top drug manufacturers in a lawsuit with three counties and the city of Oakland. The judge said the governments hadn’t proven that the pharmaceutical companies used deceptive marketing to increase unnecessary opioid prescriptions and create a public nuisance.

Also this month, Oklahoma’s supreme court overturned a 2019 judgment for $465 million in a suit brought by the state against drugmaker Johnson & Johnson.

Other lawsuits have resulted in big settlements or proposed settlements before trials were completed.

The jury’s decision in Cleveland had little effect on the stock of CVS, Walgreens and Walmart, which all closed higher Tuesday on Wall Street.