MARTINSBURG – According to the Centers for Disease Control, opioid overdose deaths in 2015 killed West Virginians at the rate of 41.5 per 100,000 residents. Lost lives. Shattered families. An estimated millions of dollars in state, county and municipal debt thanks to the highest overdose rate in the country – one that’s three times the national average.
In light of this, why would West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse's Roman Stauffer attempt to make political hay out of this devastating crisis? Is it to protect the $13 billion per year the pharmaceutical industry makes from the epidemic?
The opioid epidemic is a crisis nationwide. Overdose deaths from opioids have quadrupled since 2000, totaling more than 33,000 deaths in the United States in 2015. In 2014 alone, more than 1.3 million Americans ended up in emergency rooms for treatment after taking opioids. The pharmaceutical manufacturers and their distributors knew that there was a problem. Millions of pills were being shipped – enough for every man, woman and child to have hundreds of pills apiece. Despite the red flags, pills flooded communities and pharmaceutical industry profits continued to rise.
But who's bearing the costs? Taxpayers. Two years ago, West Virginia Executive reported that the economic burden incurred by West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky due to the criminal justice costs, loss in worker productivity and treatment totals $2.72 billion annually."
In March, The Washington Post reported that "counties across [West Virginia] have been ravaged by the crisis ... distributors sent 66 million doses of oxycodone and hydrocodone into Kanawha County, population 190,000. Addiction and deaths have cost his taxpayers millions of dollars in lost wages and productivity, along with increased spending for police, hospitals and jails."
Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical industry pocketed billions – not just from the sale of opioids, but also for the sale of Narcan and other naloxone drugs that treat opioid overdoses. Every company that produces the drug has increased its price has demand for it increased. Business Insider reported that "the price increases, combined with the increase in demand, have caused sales of naloxone to jump $21.3 million in 2011 to $81.9 million in 2015 – an increase of nearly 400 percent in three years.
Now, state and local government officials across the nation are standing up and saying no more. President Donald Trump campaigned on combating the epidemic and appointed a bipartisan commission to address the problems. A coalition of more than half of the state attorneys general, led by the Republican AGs from Wisconsin and Nevada, are working jointly to investigate the industry and its role in creating the epidemic. In Congress, both the Senate and House have committees investigating as well.
Stauffer would have you believe that West Virginia is the only state to turn to the courts to recoup tax dollars. Stauffer is wrong. Major lawsuits have been filed against drug manufacturers and distributors by several states including claims filed by the Republican AGs in Ohio, Missouri and Oklahoma. Counties and municipalities across the country seek to recover tax dollars spent on the opioid crisis too. In addition to those already filed, dozens more are being considered nationwide.
As in other states, West Virginia's efforts to recover the tax dollars we've lost has been bipartisan as well. While our state-level claims began under Democratic AG Darrell McGraw, they continued under Republican AG, and now U. S. Senate candidate, Patrick Morrisey. Indeed, Morrisey's office, assisted by outside counsel, recovered more than $47 million against the pharmaceutical industry – taxpayer money destined to be returned to state coffers.
West Virginia's elected officials at the county and municipal levels are stepping up for their taxpayers as well. It is an effort led by both Democrats and Republicans, including the five experienced GOP county commissioners here in Berkeley County. They're hiring attorneys to recoup tax dollars and protect the taxpayers.
Does Stauffer really believe that the Berkeley County Council and other local governments need Charleston bureaucrats to tell them how to make the decisions that are best for their residents?
The opioid crisis has cost taxpayers millions. Now our local elected officials are holding the corporate wrongdoers accountable and recouping the tax dollars we've been forced to spend. West Virginia taxpayers are local officials' first priority – unlike Roman Stauffer and CALA who put corporate profits ahead of our communities, our tax dollars and our lives.
Hammer is the president of the West Virginia Association for Justice. He practices in Martinsburg.