U.S. Food and Drug Administration/Public domain

U.S. Food and Drug Administration/Public domain

Snohomish County moves to sue opioid manufacturer

The County Council voted Monday to authorize a lawsuit against corporations and medical providers.

Snohomish County filed a lawsuit Monday against corporations that make and distribute prescription opioids, joining a long list of governments seeking damages for the toll that OxyContin and similar drugs have taken on society.

The County Council voted unanimously to authorize a lawsuit to be filed in Snohomish County Superior Court. The suit named drugmaker Purdue Pharma and distributor McKesson Corporation, among other defendants.

The county also is seeking damages from a few doctors, clinics and pharmacies involved locally with prescribing and selling narcotics. The county hopes to prove that they recklessly ignored criminal activity and pursued corporate interests over the well-being of the community.

“We see the suffering caused by opioid addiction in our criminal justice system, our neighborhoods and our schools,” Prosecuting Attorney Adam Cornell said. “By filing this civil lawsuit, we are trying to force these companies to take responsibility for their reckless actions. That is the surest path for protecting our community and others like us.”

Cornell said the complaint is tailored to local circumstances.

“This is not a cookie-cutter lawsuit,” he said.

County Executive Dave Somers and Sheriff Ty Trenary strongly supported the action.

Everett and the Tulalip Tribes have filed federal lawsuits against Purdue. Those cases have been transferred to U.S. District Court in Cleveland, Ohio, which is overseeing dozens of similar suits. Purdue on Monday denied the county’s allegations.

The county says its lawsuit aims to hold defendants accountable for illegally diverting OxyContin to the black market.

In a news release, county leaders made it clear that most doctors and pharmacists have cooperated to promote responsible opioid use. The suit, however, targets some practitioners that the county deems bad actors.

The complaint provides details of the alleged misconduct, including internal emails. It describes a drug ring in the Los Angeles area that used false OxyContin orders to sell the narcotic on the black market in Snohomish County. The suit alleges that Purdue and McKesson continued to supply massive quantities of OxyContin to the drug ring until it was shut down by law enforcement.

Cornell said the complaint could be amended in the future. The case also could be moved to the federal court system. The county hired the same firm handling Everett’s lawsuit against Purdue, which is Seattle-based Goldfarb & Huck, Roth, Riojas, PLLC.

Just over a year ago, the executive’s office activated the county’s emergency management system to lead a coordinated response to what officials consider a crisis of opioid abuse. The move allowed professionals from public health, public safety and human services, among others, to work together more effectively. They call it the Multi-Agency Coordination Group, or MAC Group for short. They credit the effort with drastically cutting wait times for toxicology tests at the Medical Examiner’s Office, training more than 800 people to use the overdose-reversal drug Narcan and increasing the availability of medication-assisted opioid treatment.

“The devastation of the opioid epidemic has been felt in every corner of our county and region,” Somers said. “This lawsuit is an important step in making amends for the damage done to our neighbors and family members by this predatory behavior.”

The sheriff sees a strong link between opioid addiction and criminal activity.

“One out of every three inmates booked in our jail is immediately placed on an opioid withdrawal watch,” Trenary said.

Trenary hoped the negative attention would force the drugmakers and distributors to change their ways for good.

“We’re only treating the symptoms of this public health epidemic, but the upstream tidal wave continues to hit us every day,” the sheriff said.

Opioid addiction is a constant theme for police and social workers trying to get people out of homeless encampments and into more stable living situations. About 40 percent of the 428 people who have used the county’s new diversion center next to the jail have gone on to seek treatment for their addictions, said Shari Ireton, a sheriff’s office spokeswoman.

Since 2015, police in Snohomish County have reported using Narcan on more than 200 people who were suffering from overdoses, likely saving their lives, Ireton said.

Purdue Pharma on Monday issued a response to the lawsuit and expressed concern about the opioid crisis. The Stamford, Connecticut-based company pledged to work with the state and county officials on meaningful solutions.

“We vigorously deny the county’s allegations,” the statement read. “The county claims Purdue acted improperly by communicating with prescribers about scientific and medical information that FDA has expressly considered and continues to approve. We believe it is inappropriate for the county to substitute its judgment for the judgment of the regulatory, scientific and medical experts at FDA. We look forward to the opportunity to present our substantial defenses.”

A company spokesman noted that Purdue ended its program promoting opioids to prescribers almost a year ago.

A spokeswoman for San Francisco-based McKesson highlighted the company’s work to deliver medicine to millions of people every day.

“We are deeply concerned by the impact the opioid epidemic is having on families and communities across our nation,” a company statement says. “We are committed to engaging with all who share our dedication to acting with urgency and working together to end this national crisis.”

McKesson maintains that it only distributes opioids to registered, licensed pharmacies and supports efforts to prevent its drugs from being diverted. The company claims it reports hundreds of thousands of suspicious orders to the DEA each year.

Among the other defendants in the suit, some have made news before.

Dr. Frank Li was the medical director and shareholder of the Seattle Pain Center, which operated a clinic in Everett and others throughout the state. The state suspended Li’s license in 2016 as part of an investigation into over-prescribing opioids, which the authorities alleged contributed to overdoses and deaths.

Also named is Dr. Delbert Whetstone, who served a three-year federal prison sentence in relation to prescribing prolific amounts of pain medication. An osteopath, Whetstone formerly ran a pain management clinic on Evergreen Way. His license is suspended.

Dr. Donald Dillinger is named, as is Statcare, the clinic he used to run near Silver Lake in Everett. The suit alleges that Purdue targeted Dillinger with marketing and encouraged him “to write an ever-increasing number of prescriptions for OxyContin.” Dillinger voluntarily surrendered his license, according to state records.

Another defendant is Dr. Hieu Tue Le, who pleaded guilty in 2013 to running a prescription mill out of NW Green Medical, his clinic on Everett Mall Way. In April 2014, Le was sentenced to five years in prison and three years of supervised release for distribution of a controlled substance, according to the complaint.

Rite Aid and Sevan Pharmacy also are listed as defendants.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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