Suiting up: County files lawsuit against opioid industry

LAYING DOWN THE LAW: The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners had a lawsuit on its behalf against the opioid industry filed in federal court on Tuesday, Nov. 14.
LAYING DOWN THE LAW: The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners had a lawsuit on its behalf against the opioid industry filed in federal court on Tuesday, Nov. 14. Photo by Dan Hesse

A lawsuit on behalf of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners against manufacturers and distributors of opioids was officially filed in federal court on Tuesday, Nov. 14. The move comes just less than a month after commissioners unanimously approved pursuing litigation.

“Today, Buncombe County has filed a federal lawsuit against the drug manufacturers and wholesale distributors that are responsible for fueling the opioid epidemic in our country and our county,” stated commission Chair Brownie Newman. “They have pushed highly addictive, dangerous opioids while falsely representing to doctors that patients only rarely succumb to drug addiction.”

From January through August of this year, the county had 230 opioid-related emergency department visits, compared to 84 such incidents during the same time period last year, according to the N.C. Division of Public Health. That represents a 173 percent increase.

“I believe, along with the county, it’s time to step up and hold the industry accountable for what it’s done, for the devastation the county sees on a daily and monthly basis,” announced Mike Fuller with the McHugh Fuller Law Group that is partnering with a collective of law firms representing the county.

Blake Fagan, a physician with the Mountain Area Health Education Center, noted that there’s merit to the lawsuit, as the medical community was previously assured opioids would be a safe form of pain management. “We were told less than 1 percent of [opioid recipients] would become addicted and we should use them for chronic, non-cancer pain. That’s absolutely not true,” he said. Fagan added that data from the Centers for Disease Control states an adult who has never been exposed to an opioid-based pill has a 35 percent chance of using opioids for an entire year if given a legitimate 30-day prescription.

Meantime, commissioners weighed in on how opioids have affected the community at large and also relayed stories of personal loss. Commissioner Joe Belcher recounted how his church congregation recently held a funeral for a young woman who lost her battle with opioids. “It’s time we knock down walls between government, business, church and community and realize this is affecting everybody. It’s affected my family, my church … it’s not acceptable,” he said solemnly.

Commissioner Al Whitesides recalled being at a public meeting and seeing a couple clearly shouldering a burden. “When I went to speak with them, she shared they had just lost their daughter a few days before to opioids. All I could do was hug her,” he said. “This is what we’re going through in Buncombe County. I have family and friends who have gone through a lot with this. We can’t afford to just stand back and let this happen. We’ve got to speak up.”

Newman told Xpress there are no expectations on the timeline for the lawsuit to be resolved or the dollar amount it might potentially bring in, but he did say the money would be prioritized for treatment and law enforcement efforts.

Early this year, Xpress realized the opioid epidemic was infiltrating Buncombe County and did an in-depth report, “Cure for pain: Preventing opioid-related deaths,” which can be read here.

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About Dan Hesse
I grew up outside of Atlanta and moved to WNC in 2001 to attend Montreat College. After college, I worked at NewsRadio 570 WWNC as an anchor/reporter and covered Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners starting in 2004. During that time I also completed WCU's Master of Public Administration program. You can reach me at dhesse@mountainx.com.

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