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McCarley: “Specifically, we’re asking for funds for treatment centers, so the people who are addicted to these drugs can get help.”

The average life expectancy in the United States is on the decline, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, largely due to a class of prescription drugs taken by millions of Americans each year. Fatalities resulting from drug overdoses reached an all-time national high of more than 70,000 in 2017, according to CDC data. Of those deaths, 47,600 resulted from overdoses on opioids, the class of drugs that includes heroin as well as prescription painkillers like oxycodone, morphine, and codeine. 

Recent efforts on the part of state and local governments to combat the epidemic — including the increased availability of naloxone (a drug that temporarily reverses the effects of an opioid overdose) and stricter guidelines for the prescriptions of opioid drugs — haven’t significantly stemmed that death toll. Matt McCarley, partner at Dallas-based Fears Nachawati Law Firm, said the best chance of reversing the crisis is to hold pharmaceutical companies, along with the distribution companies and retail stores they work with, accountable.

“What we have is a supply problem,” McCarley said in a phone interview. “Manufacturers and distributors are in the business of [pushing these opioids]. The more they manufacture and distribute them, the more money they make. There has to be some [financial] pain on their part in order for them to change course.” 

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In November, McCarley’s law firm filed a lawsuit on behalf of Johnson County against Purdue Pharma (and several other companies that manufacture, distribute, and sell opiods in Johnson County) alleging that the companies are part of a “concerted industry scheme” that used false advertising to cause consumers in Johnson County to seek out opioids, according to the petition filed in Johnson County. 

In 2017, Johnson County reported 13 deaths related to opioid overdose, according to the Tarrant County Medical Examiner. A report presented to Fort Worth City Council last year said that, in 2016, Tarrant County saw an opioid overdose death rate at 4.9 per 100,000 residents, when the state average that year was 10.31 per 100,000. The report stated that John Peter Smith Hospital, which services Tarrant County, reduced its opioid prescriptions by 35 percent between 2014 and 2017 to combat opioid addiction.

The so-called “industry scheme” has been well documented by investigative reporting on the part of The New York Times and other national papers. In 2006, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to felony charges of “misbranding” its top-selling drug, OxyContin. The company paid $600 million in fines while three Purdue executives, including Purdue’s president at the time, also pleaded guilty and agreed to pay $34.5 million in fines. But Perdue Pharma has shot back against accusations of profiteering off the deaths of thousands of Americans in recent years. In public comments, Perdue executives blamed doctors for over-prescribing the drug. A statement on Perdue’s website said OxyContin is all-too-often lumped in with generic opioids. 

“News reports often mistakenly refer to OxyContin, even when other medications containing oxycodone are specifically named by authorities,” the website said. “The majority of opioid prescriptions dispensed in the [United States] are other forms of opioids.”

The Johnson County lawsuit is one of thousands currently being filed against opioid manufacturers and distributors this year. A recent NPR story said opioid makers are facing a “wave of civil lawsuits that could total tens of billions of dollars in damages.” Many of the current lawsuits, like the game-changing litigation against major U.S. tobacco companies in the 1990s, seek funds to treat victims. 

“In order to get the death rate down, you have to treat those individuals,” McCarley said. “Specifically, we’re asking for funds for treatment centers, so the people who are addicted to these drugs can get help. These addictions are not something that can be resolved in 30 days. Texas counties need these resources.”

The Johnson County lawsuit, along with dozens of other suits filed on behalf of Texas counties, are being consolidated in Harris County to streamline the litigation process and cut down on court costs, McCarley said. He estimates that it could be several months before the first Texas case is heard. McCarley said that, in the coming months, his firm will begin gathering evidence to prove that opioid manufacturers and distributors working in Johnson County violated the Controlled Substance Act by not reporting orders of a suspicious size.

“Most of the people who are on opioids are good people who have taken these drugs because their doctor told them they were safe,” McCarley said. “We’re trying to get these counties resources to address this epidemic so we can start to see a decrease in opioid deaths.”

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