Mora County joins lawsuit against opioid makers


Mora County, claiming its taxpayers are unfairly bearing treatment costs of addicts, has become the first local government in the state to join a lawsuit seeking to collect money from the companies that manufacture addictive pain medicine known as opioids.

The Mora County commissioners voted unanimously to retain the firms of Napoli Shkolnik of New York and Fadduol, Cluff, Hardy & Conaway of Albuquerque to sue on behalf of county taxpayers and seek compensation from pharmaceutical companies. The commissioners' claim the county is entitled to monetary damages because of the harm and public expense caused by prescription drugs, including Oxycontin and Percocet.

The 235-page lawsuit was filed this week in the state District Court in Las Vegas, N.M., and has been assigned to Judge Abigail Aragon.

"The lawsuits seek to recover money that the county had to expend for substance abuse programs, extra law enforcement and a whole host of other costs associated with opioid overdoses in New Mexico," said Joshua K. Conaway, an Albuquerque attorney on the case. "Mora County has chosen to take a leadership role in the state with the opioid epidemic."

The case names 20 of the largest drugmakers, including Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Cardinal Health, Teva Pharmaceuticals and McKesson Corp. Advocates claim the litigation is similar to that filed by state governments against Big Tobacco, which resulted in a $200 billion settlement paid over decades by major companies. The money has helped to support basic government programs and fund cancer research and smoking cessation programs.

For their part, the drug companies say they are providing medicine approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that must be prescribed by a physician. When abuse occurs, they say, it is because addicts are not following the label guidelines or gain access to their product illegally.

The companies say this case is different from the tobacco litigation in which smokers bought cigarettes over the counter and were unaware of the addiction level.

Attorney Joseph L. Ciaccio of Napoli Shkolnik said his firm now represents two dozen governments, including those of New York state, Ohio, West Virginia, Maine and New Hampshire. All the cases seek to prove that the pharmaceutical firms were deceptive about the potency of their products. He said opioid medicines were intended to relieve postsurgical pain and for end-of-life care.

Instead, he said, the manufacturers "weren't honest about the addictive nature of the pills," and "convinced the medical community they could be used for permanent care for anyone with any type of ache and pain. And now we are seeing the effects of that."

A news release by the lawyers carried a statement from Mora County Commission Chairwoman Paula A. Garcia. "Mora County is proud to lead the charge in New Mexico in this groundbreaking litigation," she said. "The opioid epidemic has caused devastation, touched virtually every citizen's life and certainly has caused the county to incur expenses and utilize resources needlessly."

Of New Mexico's 33 counties, Mora's population of 4,500 ranks it 27th.

Recent data released by the state Department of Health indicates the overdose death rate in the state fell to 24.8 deaths per 100,000 in 2015, down from 26.8 in 2014.

New Mexico ranked second in deaths nationally in 2014 and 42nd in 2015. The national data for 2016 has not yet been released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Though Mora County's overdose deaths previously were above the national and state average, state data shows no deaths in either 2015 or 2016.

Mora County in 2014 was also at the forefront of an effort by groups to use local land-use and water-quality regulations to prohibit fracking, a technique for oil and gas extraction.

Within months, a private-property owner, two companies and the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming the ordinance infringed on property rights and violated the U.S. Constitution. A subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell filed a separate lawsuit over the ban, seeking damages.

A U.S. district judge ruled in 2015 that Mora County's oil and gas ban was unconstitutional and invalid.

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This story first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sister publication of The Taos News.