Upshur County considers joining coalition to fight opioids

The Upshur County Courthouse will be the site of a #backtheblue prayer vigil Tuesday night in support of law enforcement.

Upshur County could be among the first governmental entities in East Texas to become part of a new coalition that intends to target manufacturers and marketers of opioids.

County commissioners on Friday will consider retaining legal counsel for anticipated opioid litigation. Opioids are a family of drugs that includes prescription painkillers, such as hydrocodone; illegal drugs, such as heroin; and synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl.

County Judge Dean Fowler said Tuesday that the Tefteller Law Firm in Gilmer, along with Martin and Walker Law of Tyler, approached the county. The law firms are working with lead firm Simon, Greenstone, Panatier & Bartlett of Dallas to build a coalition of counties and cities in Northeast Texas to sue manufacturers, marketers and distributors of opioids.

"The goal is to try and recoup the cost of the opioid epidemic," Fowler said. "It costs our taxpayers to take care of people who are addicted to opioids, and the cost to the public is very high."

Fowler did not immediately have a cost estimate for the impact the epidemic is having on Upshur County, but he said that cost should be part of a presentation during Friday's meeting.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 90 Americans die every day from opioid overdoses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the total "economic burden" of prescription opioid misuse in the United States is $78.5 billion a year. That includes costs of health care, lost productivity, addiction treatment and criminal justice.

In Upshur County, Fowler said, there are people on the county's indigent health program who abuse opioids, and the county must treat jail inmates who are addicted to the drugs.

Based on the 2015 national average, Fowler estimates Upshur County records about seven deaths annually because of opioid addiction. The county has about 40,000 people.

In 2015, there were about 33,000 opioid-related deaths nationwide, according to the CDC.

"Opioid marketers and manufacturers deliberately mislead doctors and health care providers — even the (Federal Drug Administration) as to how addictive opioids were," Fowler said. "I want to make very clear that we are not talking about suing any local doctors or health care providers. We are merely targeting the manufacturers, marketers and distributors that mislead them."

According to the CDC, since about 1999, the number of opioid prescriptions has quadrupled. In 2012, about 259 million prescriptions were written for opioids, according to the CDC.

While Fowler said he does not necessarily want to see Upshur County engaged in lawsuits, he said he believes the county must try to recoup as much of the costs associated with opioids as it can.

"We have a fiduciary duty as the commissioners court to recoup taxpayer dollars," he said.