By SHERIDAN CYR
Twenty-five city and town leaders across Connecticut, including Plainville Town Manager Robert E. Lee, met in Waterbury City Hall on Thursday, Aug. 31 to hear city Mayor Neil M. O’Leary’s offer to join Waterbury in a lawsuit against manufacturers of prescription opioid painkillers.
The lawsuit alleges that drug makers engage in a coordinated and sophisticated campaign to mask the risks of opioid medications, while exaggerating benefits to create massive profits. Among other tactics, drug makers pushed opioid use for more common ailments, including back pain, arthritis and headaches, according to the suit.
The lawsuit costs nothing for individual towns to join in. Lawyers are working on the case contingently. If the case is won, the settlement will be distributed between the lawyers and to all of the towns and cities who joined in the case. Ideally, the money they receive will be used within their own fights against opioid abuse and overdoses.
Mayors and leaders from Naugatuck, Oxford, Wolcott, Roxbury, New Milford, Bridgeport and Bristol have agreed to participate. Plainville has not yet agreed to join the fight, but Lee gathered information from the Aug. 31 meet-up which will be discussed with the Town Council in upcoming meetings.
“Plainville is experiencing the same types of issues that larger cities like Waterbury are, just on a smaller scale,” said Lee. He went on to explain that the town council will ultimately decide to join or not, and that a plan would be developed only at that time. “We’re not going to use up time sorting out everything if the council doesn’t even want to get involved.”
Town Council chair Kathy Pugliese said there are many questions to figure out before any official motions are made by the town.
“There are many moving parts involved, and we don’t have enough information yet to say one way or another,” said Pugliese. The information that Lee brings to the table in upcoming meetings will help the council decide.
Some items in question are: what is Plainville’s role, what departments will be effected by the decision, and what the ultimate payout would be if the lawsuit is won.
“An important factor to our ultimate decision is that we don’t have to put up any money toward the suit. The fact that the lawyers are willing to take on that risk speaks on how strong they think the suit is,” said Lee.
Dr. James Gill, Connecticut’s chief medical examiner, gave a statement in late August reporting that the state is on track to have 1,078 accidental drug overdose deaths this year, a figure up 18 percent in 2017 from this point in time last year.
Gill announced there have been 539 accidental drug overdose deaths in the state over the first half of the year, up 917 deaths from last year. The number is nearly triple the amount of deaths that occurred in 2012, which saw 357 overdose deaths.
The release also included that Fentanyl, the synthetic opioid, has surpassed heroin as the most common opioid causing fatal overdoses. Fentanyl was found in 322 overdose deaths this year, compared to 257 heroin overdose deaths. It can be up to 50 times stronger than heroin.
Plainville is home to around 17,400 residents, reported Lee. A state-wide report by the Chief Medical Examiner listed that from January to June of this year, two Plainville residents overdosed on opioids. Among the tactics that the town employs in their fight is that emergency respondents are equipped with Narcan, a medication that can stop an overdose in its tracks.
“Our emergency respondents have been called to more of these issues. It has increased pretty dramatically over the years,” said Lee.
The Police Chief, Matt Catania, has requested to attend the upcoming town council meeting where the lawsuit will be discussed, according to Lee.
Defendants of the case include three doctors involved with promoting opioids nationally, along with drug makers Perdu Pharma of Stamford, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries of Isreal, Cephalone Inc., Johnson & Johnson, Endo Health Solutions, along with subsidiaries of these companies.
Teva spokeswoman Doris Saltkill responded to emails from the Waterbury Republican.-American and said her company has programs to educate providers and patients on safe use, and that she is eager to work with regulators, medical providers and public officials.
Purdue spokesman Robert Josephson told the Republican-American, “While we vigorously deny the allegations, we share local officials’ concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions.”
Waterbury Republican-American reporter Michael Puffer contributed to this story.