Washington County has joined a dozen other Maine cities and counties that are among many nationwide to file lawsuits against the manufacturers of opioid prescription medications.
Citing the impact that widespread addiction to painkiller pills has had on public resources, hundreds of governmental entities including states, municipalities and counties have filed suit against pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors and retailers, alleging that the companies misled the public and doctors about the risks. Purdue Pharma, AmerisourceBergen Drug, CVS, Walgreens and Walmart are among more than two dozen defendants in the lawsuit.
Chris Gardner, chairman of the Washington County Commission, said Tuesday that the county, long regarded as one of the poorest along the East Coast, has long had a problem with prescription opioid addiction. Relatively easy access to pills has made many people dependent on opioids and led to a resurgence of heroin use and to increased numbers of overdose deaths, he said.
More than 400 people died in Maine from drug overdoses in 2017. In recent years, Washington County had the highest rate of drug overdose deaths per 100,000 residents, according to state statistics.
“If there was a murderer going around killing this many people in Maine, an FBI task force would have been created a long time ago,” Gardner said.
Gardner, a former police officer, said illicit opioid abuse has fueled much of the county’s crime problem and has adversely impacted its economy. There has been a “tremendous financial burden” on county taxpayers because of the opioid “epidemic,” he said.
To address the issue, earlier this month Gov. Janet Mills laid out a plan that boosts addiction treatment and sets aside $1.6 million to expand access to the overdose antidote naloxone and recovery coaches.
The aim of the lawsuit is to help provide some financial relief to government agencies that are trying to address the issue and deal with the fallout from the pervasive abuse of opioids, according to the commissioner.
“I don’t think this issue has gotten the attention it deserves,” Gardner said. “Those who have profited from this need to be held accountable.”
Cities in Maine that are among the plaintiffs in the lawsuits are Augusta, Auburn, Bangor, Lewiston, Portland and Waterville. Counties in the Maine that are taking legal action against the pharmaceutical firms include Androscoggin, Aroostook, Lincoln, Penobscot, Sagadahoc, Somerset and York.
The complaints filed by Maine cities and counties are expected to be consolidated with scores of other legal complaints being brought against the pharmaceutical makers and distributors in a class action case in federal court in Ohio.