Williamson County latest local agency to sue Big Pharma companies over opioid crisis

Williamson County

KXAN’s Alyssa Goard is working on an in-depth report on this suit.

WILLIAMSON COUNTY (KXAN) — Williamson County has filed a lawsuit against the major manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of pharmaceutical opioids, saying that these companies have caused harm, death and also cost a great deal of money for the county.

In the lawsuit filed June 14 in the District Court of Williamson County, the county said it has spent and continues to spend “large sums combating the public health crisis” created by negligence and fraudulent marketing of these companies.

This suit was filed against Purdue Pharma, as well as many other big-name companies, including Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Johnson & Johnson, Endo Health Solutions, Abbott Laboratories, Knoll Pharmaceutical and many others including retailers like CVS, Walgreen’s and Walmart stores.

The county claims that opioid use and addiction has driven Williamson County resident’s health care costs higher and that it has adversely affected the county’s child protection agencies by increasing the number of children in foster care because their parents are coping with addiction.

Though the suit says the county is still calculating how much damage has been done by opioids there, they say the damages will be more than $1 million and less than $100 million.

Williamson County is the latest on a growing list of localities and states that are suing pharmaceutical companies over the opioid crisis which has wreaked havoc nationwide.

The lawsuit claims in 2015, Texas had the second-highest total healthcare costs of all states, from opioid abuse at $1.96 billion.

In 2017, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and 40 other state attorneys general began conducting an investigation into whether companies making and distributing opioids have been doing so illegally. A year later, the State of Texas sued Purdue Pharma for their prescriptions of opioids.

In February of 2018, Travis County filed a lawsuit against makers, distributors and marketers of opioids, also seeking up to $100 million in damages. Many other Texas counties have also filed suits.

Combatting opioid overdoses in Williamson County

Williamson County could not provide comment on this lawsuit, but they were able to talk about the ways their county has tried to address opioid addiction and overdose.

Williamson County EMS said that in 2018, they transported 444 patients who were believed to have either an opioid-related disorder or poisoning/drug ingestion. Of those patients, 50 received Narcan — the brand name for a medication used to counter opioid overdoses. WCEMS noted that not all opioid-related calls require the use of Narcan.

WCEMS said it can be inferred that some or most of the 50 patients were suspected of having an opioid-related disorder or overdose. They added that it’s not uncommon for people to be using multiple drugs or intoxicants in overdose cases.

Thanks to a grant, Williamson County was awarded and started using in 2018, the county has a program in place to better respond to overdose calls and then connect those patients to treatment. The program is sponsored by the Round Rock Fire Department and run through the state’s Texas Targetted Opioid response program.

Williamson County said that theirs was one of the first programs like it in the state along with San Antonio and Houston. Now that their program has had success, they are helping other areas like Austin to roll out similar ones.

“A lot of people overdose unintentionally, so they may be prescribed pain medication and maybe they accidentally take two doses, it’s not uncommon for someone to be confused or be on multiple medications and they take two doses,” said Annie Burwell, the director of mobile outreach within Williamson County EMS. “And that’s one reason we feel that everyone who is prescribed the opioid should also be offered an antidote, Naloxone or Narcan, which are part of our program.”

Burwell said that the Mobile Outreach Response team interacts daily with patients who are struggling with opioid substance use disorder in Williamson County.

She explained that in Williamson County, her team treats opioid overdoses both from Heroin and from prescription medications. A recent concern for Williamson County is that more Fentanyl has been entering the supply chain and people who purchase opioids illegally are more likely to unintentionally overdose on it.

“What we really want to do is shorten the time period so that you take the person from the crisis, support them through that crisis medically and emotionally, and move them into treatment as rapidly as possible,” Burwell said.

Burwell’s team will respond to the initial overdose incident, then track those patients to either the county’s health department or to other resources. Williamson County MOT aims to leave patients with a Narcan kit and help connect patients to therapy and peer coaching.

Dr. Lori Palazzo is part of that program, she is the Medical Director for the local health authority for Williamson County and Cities Health District. Palazzo explained that members of Williamson County’s Mobile Outreach team will call or text her when they have a patient who has overdosed and they try to get that patient into her office as quickly as possible.

“We try to get them within 24 hours usually,” she explained.

Palazzo then evaluates those patients and can prescribe them Suboxone.

She said seeing patients quickly means that they will likely be in withdrawal when they take the Suboxone, which is how the medication will work best.

She estimates that she is called in to help with these overdose calls around once a month.

After the initial response, their team starts taking care of the patient once a week over the next three to six months until they are able to get the patient to a long-term outpatient center. They also help the patients with whatever other medical problems they may have and help the patients get connected to counseling, housing or other resources if they need it.

“I personally think that the most important thing is that they feel they are in a very trusting, very safe environment,” Palazzo said of her overdose patients.

“You’d be surprised, I think people don’t realize that people that have these problems with the drugs are everywhere, they’re holding down jobs, they’re intermingling with family and friends, you might think you might not know them, but these are your regular average Joe and Janes and they’re not the stereotypical living under a bride downtown,” Palazzo said. “These are people who are trying their best but unfortunately have this addiction that is a disease, like diabetes, like hypertension and it needs to be treated.”

She explained that now doctors are becoming more aware of the dangers in prescribing opioids. She went through an online training to be able to prescribe Suboxone to help people after opioid overdoses and hopes that other doctors or nurse practitioners dot the same.

“I always compare it to a person with diabetes,” she said. “You can’t just tell a person with diabetes, just be tough and stop eating sugar and your diabetes will be healed. it doesn’t work like that, it’s an intrinsic problem with your pancreas that cant’ make enough insulin. “

“It’s the same thing is here, these patients have receptors that are craving all the time for that drug,” she said of the opioid overdose patients. She explained that Suboxone helps stave off those cravings.

Anyone who wants to get trained on how to provide Narcan can attend a free training by UT Health San Antonio and the Texas Overdose Nalaxone Initiative on July 25 from 6- 8 p.m. at 3189 SE Inner Loop Ste A Georgetown, TX 78626.

Anyone looking for help from the Williamson County MOT can call MOT dispatch at (512) 864-8277 or call 911 if it’s an emergency. You can also email WilcoNarcan@gmail.com

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