WATERLOO — Black Hawk has joined a growing list of Iowa counties suing drug manufacturers for the costs of dealing with the nation’s opioid epidemic.
Members of the county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a request from County Attorney Brian Williams for Black Hawk to join the federal lawsuit filed Friday by 36 other Iowa counties.
The suit alleges five major pharmaceutical manufacturers, their subsidiaries and several physicians used “nefarious and deceptive” marketing campaigns “falsely portraying both the risks of addiction and abuse and the safety and benefits of long-term (opioid) use.”
It’s the first such wave of lawsuits filed in Iowa against the opioid manufacturers and comes on the heels of similar suits filed in New York, Louisiana, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Wisconsin.
“I think most of us know that big pharma is screwing Americans every day, and they’re largely responsible for this epidemic,” said Black Hawk County Supervisor Chris Schwartz. “I’m glad that we’re going to be potentially a part of challenging them.”
Other counties filing suit in Iowa are: Adair, Adams, Audubon, Benton, Bremer, Buchanan, Buena Vista, Calhoun, Carroll, Cedar, Clay, Clayton, Clinton, Dallas, Delaware, Fayette, Hamilton, Hardin, Humboldt, Johnson, Lee, Mahaska, Marion, Mitchell, Monroe, Montgomery, O’Brien, Plymouth, Polk, Pottawattamie, Sac, Scott, Shelby, Sioux, Taylor and Winneshiek.
The counties are represented by the law firms of Crueger Dickinson, of Wisconsin, and Simmons Hanly Conroy, of Illinois, who will be compensated based on the size of any award or settlement and will not bill counties upfront for the cost of the litigation.
The counties allege opioid deaths have quadrupled in Iowa over the past 20 years and rates of prescription opioid overdose deaths have increased four-fold since 1999.
The Iowa Department of Public Health noted the majority of opioid related deaths in Iowa involved prescriptions, noting 646 such deaths between 2009 and 2014. And those numbers are rapidly increasing along with heroin overdose death rates, which are two to three times higher than the national average.
Counties claim the crisis is “straining county government services to the breaking point,” with costs including human services, social services, courts, law enforcement, medical examiner and health services, including hospital, emergency and ambulatory services.
Williams said he was initially reluctant to have Black Hawk County join the litigation.
“My main concern on this would have been: One, how do we quantify the damages the county may have sustained by this; and two, I really didn’t want to take money out of the hands of those who have really suffered from opioids.”
But after talking with other attorneys and “seeing in the flesh how this has affected (people) on a weekly basis” he recommended the supervisors join the suit.
“I’ve been assured that counsel will undertake the obligation to quantify any damages that have been suffered by the county,” Williams said.