Fredericksburg has joined a number of Virginia localities in taking legal action against prescription manufacturers, distributors and pharmacy benefit managers for their role in the prescription opioid crisis.

The City Council voted 5–2 Tuesday to authorize the litigation team of Kaufman & Canoles and Sanford Heisler Sharp to file a civil lawsuit against defendants that include Purdue Pharma, McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health and Walgreens Boots Alliance, among others.

The goal is to compel the responsible parties to reduce or eliminate what is legally termed a public nuisance, and to recover some of money that the city has spent dealing with opioid addiction, said City Attorney Kathleen Dooley.

Opioids claimed the lives of 15 people who either lived in Fredericksburg or overdosed in the city in 2017, the latest year for which the Virginia Department of Health has figures. Statewide, it also found that incidences of reported cases of Hepatitis C, neonatal abstinence syndrome (exposure to addictive opiate drugs while in the womb), and deaths due to opioid overdoses have increased dramatically since 2011.

While deaths due to prescription opioids have declined recently, those caused by fentanyl or heroin have increased.

The city hired Kaufman & Canoles and Sanford Heisler Sharp last July to investigate the city's claims and provide a report. Dooley said that findings are confidential, but the city has spent "somewhere in millions of dollars in the last five years or so" dealing with the opioid crisis.

Opioid addiction has not only resulted in multiple child protective services referrals due to parents involved with opioids, but also created more work for emergency medical services, the criminal justice system and the regional jail system, Dooley said.

Fredericksburg isn't the only government body looking into filing lawsuits over opioids. The Kaufman & Canoles team is looking into legal action on behalf of 33 Virginia localities.

In addition, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring filed a lawsuit last year against Purdue Pharma, the creator of Oxycontin, alleging that Virginia’s opioid crisis “is the direct and foreseeable result of a decades-long, complex, large-scale campaign of misrepresentations and deception.”

Several Virginia localities—including Bland, Carroll, Grayson, and Smyth counties—have filed federal lawsuits accusing 15 prescription drug manufacturers and three distributors of aggressively persuading doctors to prescribe opioids and profiting from patients' resulting addiction. So far, cities, counties and Native American tribes across the country have brought more than 400 federal lawsuits against central figures in the national opioid crisis.

In Virginia alone, opioid overdoses from 2007 to 2017 claimed the lives of 7,890 residents from 2007 to 2017, according to Herring's office. There were 504 deaths were attributable to prescription opioids in 2017, the highest number ever recorded in the commonwealth.

The city has agreed to pay the lawyers a contingency fee of 25 percent of a settlement or judgment in the lawsuit. 

"We don’t want to over-promise, but we do feel that there’s a strong legal theory where the prescription manufacturers, distributors and pharmacy benefits managers may be liable for creating the public nuisance," Dooley said.

Councilman Jason Graham asked her why benefits managers are included in the law suit. Dooley said that they determine which medications are approved by insurance companies, and many got bonuses for prescribing opioids instead of drugs that might have been better or less addictive.

Graham said that he believes the law suit is a "great first step," but fellow council members Chuck Frye Jr. and Matt Kelly did not support it. 

Frye said when the crack epidemic tore families apart in the 1980s and '90s, governments responded by toughening prison sentences for drug violators. 

"No disrespect to Ms. Dooley, but any and every firm wants to jump on this because they get paid based on law suits like this," he said. "I don’t like folks who step on a social issue when there’s a profit. I’m not attacking that firm, but give the money to kid affected by opioids."

Kelly said that while he understands the need to hold people accountable for the crisis, recovering the city's costs doesn't deal with the problem of opioid addiction. He added that illegal, not prescription, opioids are now driving the problem.

"It wasn’t just a couple of bad actors. This was a system that loosed a scourge on society," said Councilman Tim Duffy. "This in an important arrow in our quiver. We need to strike out against this. The abatement efforts that we continue to make to deal with the crisis are ongoing and will be ongoing for decades."

He added that the lawsuit might recover some of the city's costs for police and ambulances, but will not cover the cost of lives torn apart.

"Who do we sue for that?" he said. "We do need to make sure this doesn’t happen again. One way to do that is to hold people accountable."

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Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407