MANSFIELD - Richland County Children Services has filed a lawsuit accusing several major prescription drug companies of intentionally misleading the public about the dangers of opioids to sell more painkillers as they raked in “blockbuster profits.”
The 250-page complaint, filed in Richland County Common Pleas Court, claims drug manufacturers, distributors and four out-of-state doctors unjustly enriched themselves as they acted as a criminal enterprise and conspired to break numerous Ohio laws meant to protect residents.
“We cannot allow the drug manufacturers and others to continue to make huge profits at the expense of Richland County taxpayers, families and children. It simply is not fair,” Children Services Executive Director Patty Harrelson said. “That’s what this lawsuit is about.”
The suit asks for damages likely in excess of $25,000, including compensatory damages to fairly and completely compensate the agency. It also asks for treble damages, penalties and costs; punitive damages; and additional relief the court deems proper.
“As a result of the opioid epidemic, an unbelievable number of children have lost parents or been taken from parents and put in out-of-home placement through county services, at great expense to local agencies and taxpayers,” the lawsuit claims.
Largely because of the opioid epidemic, Children Services saw the number of children entering the agency’s care double, to 81 in 2016 from 41 in 2011.
The agency also saw child placement costs jump 154 percent in the last five years — $1.4 million in 2016, compared to $567,925 in 2011. Total paid days of care jumped during the same period, to 20,595 compared to 16,113. Placement costs are expected to top $2.5 million in 2018.
Children Services spokesman Carl Hunnell said any damages awarded likely would go toward those expenses.
“Because parents who are addicted to opioids are likely to relapse — some multiple times during the recovery process — their children linger in care,” the lawsuit claims. “The length of time that children stay in custody is up 19 percent (240 days from 202).
A survey done by the Public Children Services Association of Ohio showed that half of all children taken into custody during 2015 had parental drug use as a removal factor, according to the lawsuit. Of those, over half had parents using opioids, including heroin.
“That means 28 percent of children in custody that year were victims of the epidemic, and that number has certainly risen,” the lawsuit claims. “Placing these children with (relatives), while a top priority, is complicated by the fact that opioid use can become a multi-generational family addition. Consequently, agencies must turn to foster care.”
Local taxpayers provided 37 percent of the agency’s $10 million in revenue during 2016 through property taxes. The remaining funds come largely from federal (57 percent) and state (5 percent) governments, though Ohio remains last in the country of terms of child welfare funding.
It’s similar to lawsuits filed by other counties and child welfare agencies against prescription drug companies over their roles in the current opioid epidemic sweeping the nation and directly impacting public child welfare agencies, such as RCCS.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of the state against some of the same manufacturers named in the Children Services suit.
The suit names some of the largest and most powerful companies in the pharmaceutical industry, including Purdue Pharma LP, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Cephalon, Johnson & Johnson, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen Corp.
Hunnell said the lawsuit claims Oxycontin is the largest-selling opioid for Purdue Pharma. Since 2009, national sales have fluctuated from $2.4 billion to $2.9 billion a year, compared to $800 million in 2006, he said.
The suit also accuses four doctors, Robert Portenoy, Perry Fine, Lynn Webster and Scott Fisher, of downplaying the risk of prescription opioids in papers and lectures funded by the drug companies.
The lawsuit seeks a jury trial. Hunnell said the suit will not cost county taxpayers any money.