City of Fort Wayne suing opioids distributors

Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry announces Monday that the city is suing three distributors of opioids. Behind him are members of the city's police, health and mayoral youth council. (Photo by Lisa M. Esquivel Long of The News-Sentinel)

Mayor Tom Henry on Monday announced that the city of Fort Wayne will file a public nuisance lawsuit against three opioids distributors, which will bring money into the community to help with treatment for the highly addictive painkillers. Meanwhile, a group representing the distributors said they understand the opioid epidemic’s effect on communities, but “we aren’t willing to be scapegoats.”

The city has hired Taft Stettinius & Hollister based in Indianapolis as lead counsel, which has handled high-profile cases both for and against large corporations. The city has paid no money up front, and the law firm works on a contingency model, Henry said.

Chou-il Lee, of the law firm, said the contingency fee is 30 percent of whatever settlement the city would get.

The lawsuit would be filed in federal court in Fort Wayne, then likely be consolidated into Ohio’s northern district, said John Perlich, a mayoral spokesman.

The lawsuit is against the country’s three largest wholesale drug distributors – AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson Corp. The three companies, with combined annual revenues of $400 billion and profits in the billions of dollars, control more than 80 percent of the market for prescription opioids, according to Henry.

McKesson alone does about $100 million a day in business, according to Henry.

“As far as I’m concerned, their primary motivation is not health care, it’s profit.”

As such, he intends to ask for as much money as possible in the lawsuit.

Healthcare Distribution Alliance represents wholesale distributors, including McKesson, Cardinal, and AmeriSource Bergen. In response to a request for comment, alliance spokesman John Parker said in a statement, “As distributors, we understand the tragic impact the opioid epidemic has on communities across the country. We are deeply engaged in the issue and are taking our own steps to be part of the solution – but we aren’t willing to be scapegoats.

“Distributors are logistics companies that arrange for the safe and secure storage, transport, and delivery of medicines from manufacturers to pharmacies, hospitals, long-term care facilities, and others based on prescriptions from licensed physicians. We don’t make medicines, market medicines, prescribe medicines, or dispense them to consumers.

“Given our role, the idea that distributors are solely responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and how it is regulated.

“We are ready to have a serious conversation about solving a complex problem and are eager to work with political leaders and all stakeholders in finding forward-looking solutions.”

Henry said the city is holding the distributors accountable for not adhering to the protocol for distribution of opioids that has flooded the city with thousands of pills that are not needed.

“It’s our duty to serve and protect our public,” Henry said.

RELATED STORY: Hoping to recover soaring costs, Allen County government will sue opioid makers

AmerisourceBergen said in a statement that it’s willing to work with Fort Wayne leaders. Its statement said in part, “We are dedicated to doing our part as a distributor to mitigate the diversion of these drugs without interfering with clinical decisions made by doctors, who interact directly with patients and decide what treatments are most appropriate for their care. Beyond our reporting and immediate halting of tens of thousands of potentially suspicious orders, we refuse service to customers we deem as a diversion risk and provide daily reports to the DEA that detail the quantity, type, and the receiving pharmacy of every single order of these products that we distribute.

“We are committed to collaborating with all stakeholders, including in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on ways to combat opioid abuse.”

Fort Wayne Police Deputy Chief James Feasel, who oversees the narcotics division, said after the announcement that all four quadrants of the city deal with vehicle break-in thefts, a lot of them tied to opioid addicts stealing for feed their habit.

“A lot of our crime has to do with these people being addicted.”

Treatment must go hand-in-hand with enforcement because officers are seeing a lot of repeat offenders, he said.

Those who can afford treatment are begging for help to overcome the grueling withdrawal, said Megan Fisher, director of addiction recovery services at the Bowen Center, after the announcement.

“They’re suffering so much,” Fisher said. “Heroin and opioids have one of the worst withdrawal procedures.”

The community’s addicts come from all walks of life, with the average one being a 39-year-old white male, the same type of person who likely is the average Allen County worker, Fisher said.

Money from a lawsuit settlement could go to fill the community’s treatment needs, she said: creating residential and jail treatment programs and treating those who go to hospital emergency rooms with overdoses and then are released to go back to home with their addictions.

Fentanyl, an opioid, was originally designed to treat surgical pain and pain from cancer, but it’s showing up more and more in the hands of addicts.

Fort Wayne Police has seized 1,000 times more fentanyl than last year, said chief Steve Reed, another proponent of treatment as well as education.

Narcotics-related arrests are up 87 percent, and total drug raids are up 53 percent.

Fort Wayne firefighters, who respond to health-related calls, carry Narcan, a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

According to police opioid statistics, Jan. 1-Dec. 1 the city has had:

*94 overdose deaths, with 50 suspected cases pending

*1,130 calls on overdoses, with 98 in November alone

*512 doses of Narcan distributed

*A low-end estimate of $90,000 spent on employee hours alone

Dr. Deborah McMahan has said this is the worst health crisis in her 17 years as Allen County health commissioner. Opioids do not cause the number of deaths that other health crises, such as Ebola, have, she said. It’s requiring leaders to “think outside the box” with how the community is going to tackle the problem.