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Gainesville joins Hall, other counties in opioid lawsuit

Gainesville is joining Hall County, as well as a dozen other local governments across Georgia, in a lawsuit against the manufacturers and distributors of prescription painkillers that officials say have been complicit in fueling the national opioid abuse epidemic.

“This crisis is costing cities and counties money,” Mayor Danny Dunagan said. “I think it’s a crisis that needs to be addressed. We’re just going to join in and see if we can make a difference.”

On Tuesday, March 20, city officials voted unanimously to hire the Athens law firm Blasingame, Burch, Garrard & Ashley, which is representing 12 counties in partnership with the Gainesville law firm Hasty Pope, to lead the lawsuit.

“When you’re talking about the epidemic in Georgia, Northeast Georgia is one of the most affected areas,” Jon Pope, of Hasty Pope, said on Wednesday, March 14. “Hall County through 2016 had prescription rate of … 94.5 prescriptions of opioids for every 100 people in Hall County. In Habersham County, by contrast, it was 122 (prescriptions).”

Overdose deaths from opioid addiction have increased steadily, with 59,000 nationwide in 2016 and 1,302 in Georgia in 2015.

The Northeast Georgia Medical Center emergency room handled 280 cases of opiate overdoses in 2015. In 2016, that figure jumped to 700.

And data shows the number of teenagers who abuse prescription drugs is up 25 percent from 2009-2014, more so than for alcohol and marijuana.

The epidemic has cost some $78.5 billion nationwide, a quarter of that borne by Medicaid, Medicare and publicly sponsored treatment programs.

“It took many people to create the problem and it will take many entities to solve this problem, as well,” Councilman George Wangemann said.

Lawyers around the United States are laying the blame on the pharmaceutical industry, which they say either encouraged opioids to be over-prescribed in the past 20 years or deceived doctors and the public about how addictive the drugs were.

The lawsuit Gainesville is joining, according to city staff reports, seeks “to pursue all civil remedies against the manufacturers of prescription opiates and those in the chain of distribution of prescription opiates responsible for the opioid epidemic, which is plaguing Gainesville …”

The firm will take a 30 percent cut of any monetary reward, but local governments will not be charged a fee if the lawsuit stalls.

“The litigation focuses on the manufacturers and wholesale distributors and their role in the diversion of millions of prescription opiates into the illicit market which has resulted in opioid addiction, abuse, morbidity and mortality,” staff reports read. “There is no easy solution and no precedent for such an action against this sector of the industry. Many of the facts of the case are locked behind closed doors. The billion-dollar industry denies liability.”

Local governments have grown increasingly strained by the financial costs of addressing the epidemic, officials said, whether in hospital visits and ambulance calls for service, or incarceration and other law enforcement activities.

Gainesville officials, however, stressed that joining the lawsuit is about taking a stand for residents and communities so negatively affected in recent years.

“This is not about money,” City Manager Bryan Lackey said. “This is about changing attitudes. If we don’t see a dime from this, we’re fine with that.” 

Listen to Back to Life, The Times' podcast about opioid addiction