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Opioid Abuse Treatment Is State's Goal In Lawsuit Against Drug Companies, Distributors

Jake Harper
Side Effects Public Media

State and local leaders are considering how best to treat Arkansas’s opioid crisis if their coalition lawsuit succeeds against opioid drug makers and distributors.

A group of Arkansas cities and counties made national headlines when it came together last week to launch a lawsuit against 65 opioid drug makers, distributors, and others.

Colin Jorgensen is an attorney for the Arkansas Association of Counties who worked on the lawsuit. He says the case seeks a payout large enough to fix the state’s growing opioid epidemic.

"These drugs change people’s brains in fundamental ways, and it takes time for a brain to recover, and then you’re still an addict at the end of that and you need help for that.”

The state has the second highest prescription rate in the nation according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and has seen addiction rates skyrocket in recent years. The lawsuit seeks funding for overdose antidote drugs — such as Narcan — long-term addiction treatment, rehab, and more.

"These drugs change people's brains in fundamental ways, and it takes time for a brain to recover, and then you're still an addict at the end of that and you need help for that," said attorney Colin Jorgensen.

 “I mean, we need drug courts. We need our jailers to be equipped with all the right resources, but also training and education, to know how to handle addicts. We cannot arrest our way out of this problem.”

He says opioid addictions often start as prescriptions for pain medication. Once addicted, many people turn to heroin, a cheaper, more accessible drug.

Chris Villines, director of the association, says without suing the drug industry for the money, the state simply can’t afford to treat a crisis of this magnitude.

“We don’t have the resources to do everything that needs to be done on our own. I hate to say this, but it would really be a continued slide backwards in trying to deal with this issue if cities and counties don’t have additional resources to help solve the problem.”

The Healthcare Distribution Alliance, a national industry group for drug distributors, responded in an e-mailed statement.

"Given our role, the idea that the distributors are responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and is regulated," said Senior Vice President John Parker.

The group of Arkansas government leaders is still working out details of how its treatment system would work, but it would include a public education campaign, training for doctors and judges, and medication and rehab treatment for addicts.

Villines says the opioid crisis already requires a coordinated response from across all levels of government.

"We’re going and we’re administering naloxone and in some unfortunate cases picking up bodies. We’re living through this problem as cities and counties. It only makes sense that we help solve them.”

Don Zimmerman, director of the Arkansas Municipal League, says while many other cities have sued drug companies, Arkansas is unique — it's binded together as an entire state to seek compensation for the opioid crisis.

This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.

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