HUNTINGTON — An attorney representing Cabell County and 700 others in a federal opioid lawsuit says he plans to seek $500 million from three drug firms for the county’s recovery efforts from the opioid epidemic and a plan has been created on how the money generally would be spent.
Huntington-based attorney Paul T. Farrell Jr. says any money from the “Big Three” drug distribution companies — AmerisourceBergen, McKesson and Cardinal Health — via trial or settlement would be placed in a trust fund controlled by a board comprised of elected officials and other professions who will decide how the money will be allocated by following a plan outlined by local professionals.
Farrell met with The Herald-Dispatch editorial board Friday, held as Farrell shifts his attention more on lawsuits filed by Cabell County and Huntington after reaching a $215 million settlement with the same companies in Summit and Cuyahoga counties in Ohio last week in cases with similar allegations to Cabell County and Huntington’s claims.
With those two cases settled, Cabell County and Huntington are now preparing for trial and could be the first of more than 3,000 cases to go to trial in the country. Farrell said Cabell County’s claims are worse than those of the Ohio counties and he believes the area deserves money to reflect that.
The lawsuits argue that 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.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration data showed that, from 2006 to the end of 2016, West Virginia received 853.5 million prescription pain pills. Of those, 65 million — or about 96 per person per year — were distributed in Cabell County, with millions more going to surrounding counties.
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.
Farrell said in the 22 months since the Cabell County lawsuit was filed, a 30-person group has worked to develop a plan on how to abate the drug problem in the Cabell County area.
The group consists of health care providers, the Marshall University medical school and pharmacy school deans, Marshall’s chief of staff, Huntington fire and police departments, representatives from the Prestera Center and the head of Cabell Huntington Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
A 35-page report, named the “Resiliency Plan,” was then penned by Steve Petrany, of Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine and Marshall Health, Farrell said.
“We are going to develop it with evidentiary reports and statistical metrics,” Farrell said. “We are going to place a dollar value on it and give it to our federal judge and ask for $500 million (for Cabell County).”
Money received from trial or settlement will go into a trust fund and on the trust’s board will sit county commissioners, Huntington mayor, Marshall’s president and other local officials and health professionals, Farrell said. The positions will be held by whoever holds the offices at the time.
The $500 million request is in comparison to a proposed $18 billion universal settlement that fell through earlier this month, from which Cabell County would have received as little as $24,000 a year for 18 years, Farrell said. The attorneys in the case, as well as West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, were against the settlement.
The resiliency plan has three different tiers, which include containment of the opioid epidemic, keeping the community safe and providing health care to babies and others affected by the epidemic.
“Before anything, we have to stop the flow of pills and educate our children, the youngest, that mom and dad’s pill bottles are just as dangerous as the drugs on the street,” he said.
Keeping the community safe means in the school system, at home and in neighborhoods, he said. This will be done through education, law enforcement, drug court, abuse and neglect court cases, foster care and in other areas.
Farrell also said health care needed to be available to people facing drug dependency issues and children affected by their parents’ drug usage.
“We are going to be dealing with this for multi-generations,” he said. “We need to stop people from dying and overdosing. We need to provide them with the health care and the structure and the ability to come out of it, and we need to take a serious look at the long-term impact of not only children that were exposed in utero, but also the children that are (affected).”
The plan was made to prevent the funds from being taken to repair roads and other things not related to recovery, like what happened with the 1998 tobacco settlement. In that case $126 billion had been received by 2017, with less than 1% going toward anti-smoking programs. Most has gone to balance state budgets.
Farrell said he wants everything to be disclosed publicly about the drug firms and their alleged roles in fueling the opioid epidemic, which is why he will continue to work toward trial. A trial date has not been set for Huntington and Cabell County, which Farrell said is good because it will prevent attorneys from waiting until the last minute to discuss possible settlements that would outweigh the good of going to trial. He hopes the Cabell and Huntington cases will go to trial by summer 2020.
If a settlement is reached, Farrell said a nondisclosure agreement would not be part of it, he said.
Beyond the “Big Three,” Cabell County and Huntington name dozens of other defendants in its civil complaint, from where additional monies could come. They include drug manufacturers, distributors, national pharmacies and pharmacy benefit managers.
Farrell said while the focus right now is on the “Big Three” drug distributors, he eventually wants everyone to face punishment for their actions, from the drug firms to the pharmacies to the doctors who prescribed the pills.
Charleston attorney Rusty Webb represents the city of Huntington in its case.
Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.