By Tia Lyons
After a lengthy discussion that included an emotional testimony from a city alderman, the El Dorado City Council decided not to participate in efforts by the state to pursue legal action against pharmaceutical companies in the fight against the opioid crisis that is ravaging Arkansas and the U.S.
During a regular meeting Thursday, the council did not authorize Mayor Frank Hash to sign an engagement letter spelling out plans by a litigation team representing the Arkansas Municipal League and municipalities around the state to investigate and prosecute claims against companies and other parties that manufacture and/or distribute opioid medications.
While the council agreed something needs to be done to tackle the problem with opioid abuse and thousands of deaths that are caused by opioid overdoses, several aldermen felt that other approaches —such as focusing on medical professionals who write opioid prescriptions and providing the El Dorado Police Department with the tools that are necessary to purchase an overdose antidote — were more effective ways to address the issue.
Hash said he was asked to sign the letter of engagement during the municipal league’s Winter Conference, which was held Jan. 10 - 12 in Fort Smith.
He said most mayors around the state have signed onto the effort, but he wanted to present the letter to the council for approval.
“This issue about opioid use and deaths was a big thing there … Apparently this is a very serious problem in larger towns in particular and across the United States,” the mayor said, later adding that he did not think the problem was as pervasive in El Dorado.
Hash asked City Attorney Henry Kinslow if the intended litigation was similar to a class action lawsuit.
“It’s something like that. It’s one of these things they’re doing all over the country, and who knows how it’ll turn out,” Kinslow said. “Who knows what companies, if any, are liable or doctors or clinics overprescribed them or what?”
Alderman Willie McGhee noted that the litigation team is targeting pharmaceutical companies and other parties that manufacture and/or distribute opioid medications.
The companies include, but are not limited to, Purdue Pharma, L.P.; Purdue Pharma Inc.; The Purdue Frederick Company, Inc.; Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc.; Cephalon, Inc.; Johnson & Johnson; Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; and Watson Laboratories, Inc.
Hash acknowledged that “good, reliable” prescription medications, including pain relievers, help with a number of illnesses and health conditions, but he understood that some people become addicted to them.
The opioid class of narcotics includes legal prescriptions of oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine and others.
Hash said he felt that more emphasis should be placed on the physicians who “generously” prescribe the medications to patients.
“But apparently if folks that get hooked on these opioids can’t get them, they turn to heroin, which is in some cases apparently cheaper than these drugs,” Hash said.
Heroin, which is illegal, is also an opioid.
It was recently announced that late singer Tom Petty died last fall from an accidental drug overdose that involved opioid prescriptions, which he was reportedly taking for a serious hip injury.
McGhee said he heard statistics during the ALM conference that placed the rate of opioid prescriptions in Arkansas at twice the national average.
In 2016, Arkansas had more than 114 prescriptions per 100 people, placing the state second to Alabama in the number of opioid prescriptions per person.
In Union County, the rate was 131.5 prescriptions per 100 people.
“Mayor, I think the problem was, was when the pill was first introduced, it was almost introduced as a wonder drug and no side effects, and the pharmaceutical (companies) kind of lied to everybody,” McGhee said
Having dealt with recent medical issues, McGhee said that local physicians he has seen also seem to encourage over-the-counter pain relievers to help alleviate the opioid problem.
“It is an epidemic, and I think it’s something we need to address. Even though it’s a prescription drug, it’s still a drug,” McGhee said.
Alderman Judy Ward said she supports measures to prevent opioid abuse, but she did not feel that targeting pharmaceutical companies is “the right way to go.”
“They’re not the ones that are distributing to the individual these drugs. They’re going to physicians or physicians’ assistants …,” Ward said.
She said he had sought out opinions from a physician, an attorney, and a professional substance abuse counselor.
“They all said this was not the route to take — that the route to take was to make the people that are responsible that are writing these ‘scripts’,” Ward said.
She said she also learned of instances in which medical professionals have illegally written prescriptions make money, noting that those reports were not local.
“That’s where I see that the problem is coming from and not from the pharmaceuticals. I don’t want them to stop making pain meds. If I have back surgery, I want to have access to something, but with responsibility,” she said.
McGhee said he felt intended litigation by the municipal league was a first step toward addressing the issue.
“We’ve got to start somewhere, and I think education is a big part of this. We’ve got to educate our folks, and we’ve got to educate our physicians all over again and also the patients,” he said.
“I just had surgery a couple of times, and you’ve really got to educate yourself on if you want to be responsible,” McGhee continued. “But those people who are already hooked on this, we’ve got to educate them and help them.”
Police and fire departments
Hash asked Fire Chief Chad Mosby and Police Chief Billy White if their departments are equipped with antidotes for emergency treatment of suspected overdoes involving opioids.
White said the police department is not.
Emergency medical technicians with the fire department use such medication, Mosby said.
Alderman Billy Blann asked if workers have administered the antidote.
“Over the years, we’ve administered it pretty regular for different situations,” Mosby said. “We not only have the reverse (medication) for opioids, but for some of the other narcotic families as well.”
White said some police departments carry antidotes, such as Narcan, for drug overdoes, some in a trial basis.
“Now, it has saved lives in the state of Arkansas and across the nation. It’s just a matter of properly training that officer, which is very little training to do that. But currently, we do not carry it,” White said.
Hash said the council would be willing to review the city budget to see if funding is available to purchase the antidote for officers, and White said he will continue researching the matter and return to the council with a proposal.
Close to home
Alderman Mike Rice said he did not endorse pursuing litigation against pharmaceutical, stressing that more funding is needed for law enforcement to attack the problem.
“And education can be a key part of it,” Rice said.
A former law enforcement officer and director of the 13th Judicial District Task Force, Rice said the matter hit close to home for him.
He shared the story of having lost his daughter Mary Lou to a drug overdose in 2016. She was 26 and living in New Orleans at the time.
“She was addicted to opioid medication, and when the New Orleans Police Department made it hard to get, she went back to heroin, and that’s a drug we do not want in El Dorado. It’s ravaging bigger cities,” Rice said.
“I think the effort needs to be towards education and towards law enforcement to have the need and the ability to go and really go after the people that are writing these prescriptions,” he said.
“Also, sending over the Internet — other ways that they’re getting them here and be able to attack the problem,” he continued. “You can go into Mexico and get as many of these as you want, load a truckload of them up and just drive them back across the border.
Tia Lyons may be contacted at 870-862-6611 or email@example.com.