Osceola vs. Big Pharma:  County joins massive national opioid legal battle

Facilities, such as the Park Place Behavioral Health Care, above, have seen a major uptick in the number of patients struggling with opioid addiction.

Opioid addiction is costing local government millions of dollars each year.  

Now, municipalities across the country are standing up to demand restitution – and Osceola County is one of them.

In February 2018, Osceola became the first county in Florida to file suit against pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors of addictive opioid medications, including industry giants like Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals USA and others.

Addiction comes at a cost, the county argued, prompting it to seek compensation for increased health care, law enforcement and first responder expenses linked to the opioid crisis. The law firm representing Osceola County took the case on for free due to a contingency clause, though the firm is entitled to a portion of Osceola’s share if the county wins.  

Now, after almost two years, Osceola’s case is moving forward – along with over 3,000 other municipalities nationwide.

U.S. District Court Judge Dan Polster, of Ohio, created what’s known as a negotiation class on Sept. 11 to unite thousands of cities, counties, townships, villages and Native American tribes together as a single group pitted against Big Pharma. Osceola is among them, along with Orange, Seminole and Lake counties.

Polster was set to preside over the country’s first federal opioid trial in October, but four pharmaceutical companies reached a $260 million settlement with two Ohio counties just hours before opening statements.

According to The Washington Post, Polster selected these counties in last month’s trial as a “bellwether,” or a test case to see how other plaintiffs might fare.

The hope is that the upcoming litigation case Osceola County is involved in will give local governments maximum negotiating power against Big Pharma. About 75 percent of any settlement money awarded through the class would be funneled to participating cities and counties based on a pre-determined formula. Another 15 percent would go toward severely impacted communities and 10 percent would pay attorneys’ fees, according to a website created for the negotiation class.

It’s a unique and unusual tactic because class members must decide this week whether to remain in or opt out of the case before knowing how much money each member will receive.

On Nov. 18, County Attorney Andrew Mai told Osceola commissioners they also had a chance to opt-out of the multi-district litigation if they wanted.

“But neither myself nor outside counsel would recommend it,” Mai said.

The attorney added that this class is a “useful vehicle” likely to result in a settlement for the county.

Osceola commissioners agreed and chose to remain in the litigation.

The opioid crisis is big news and Florida is a state all too familiar with lethal overdoses and addiction. For years, illegal pill mills flooded the Sunshine State with cheap, addictive prescription painkillers. Loose prescribing regulations and rampant trafficking fueled an explosive fire now classified as a national epidemic.

Law enforcement eventually cracked down on unscrupulous doctors and shady walk-in clinics, but many users simply turned to other illicit substances like heroin and fentanyl to quell cravings. 

The state’s opioid overdose rate tripled from 2000 to 2016, according to a Florida Statewide Drug Policy Advisory Council report which also noted a substantial increase in deaths associated with fentanyl and heroin-related drug use. The state was second only to Ohio in the number of opioid-related overdose deaths in 2017.

Recent research by Project Opioid, in partnership with the University of Central Florida, found that over 70,000 Orange, Seminole and Osceola county residents are addicted to pain relievers, heroin or both.

Opioid addiction is a familiar topic to many in Osceola County. Before Mai updated commissioners about new legal proceedings, three residents spoke up about a lack of sober living housing and other resources for people in long-term addiction recovery.

Kissimmee resident Krystal Hernandez, an employee at the nonprofit Transition House, said she wants to see better opportunities available in her community.   

Chairwoman Cheryl Grieb acknowledged residents’ concerns while also offering a long-accepted Osceola County evasion.

“We are a low tax base area,” she said. “We try to spread it around as much as we can to help because we are very aware of the opioid crisis.”

If upcoming legal efforts prevail, some of Osceola’s lingering ailments and expenses inflicted through years of deadly addiction may finally begin to heal.

For more information or to receive updates on the case, visit the National Prescription Opiates Ligation website.