COVINGTON, Ky. - In a state ravaged by addiction to prescription pain-killers, Covington has seen its share of the damage.
From increased crime to overdose deaths to financial ruin to newborn babies suffering withdrawal symptoms, opioid misuse and abuse have created an array of shattering problems - and City of Covington service providers know the tremendous financial cost of responding to those problems.
Now the City hopes to recover a portion of those costs.
In an action being undertaken by local and state government agencies around the nation, the Covington City Commission voted 5-0 Tuesday night to hire a Covington-based law firm to file suit against opioid manufacturers, distributors and prescribers.
“This is about getting us a seat at the table as these companies are held financially responsible for problems caused by the unrestrained flood of prescription opiates that have engulfed our community over the years,” Interim City Solicitor Michael Bartlett said.
The City’s agreement with Bonar, Bucher & Rankin is contingency-based, meaning Covington will not pay any attorney fees or case expenses unless the outside attorneys successfully recover a judgment or settlement on the City’s behalf.
Numerous government bodies - including Kenton and Boone counties, Louisville Metro Government and Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear’s office - have filed similar suits. None of those suits has made their way through the courts, so it’s too early to tell what settlement Covington could hope to recover, Bartlett said.
But there’s no doubt that the costs to the City related to the opioid epidemic are tremendous:
- Police Chief Rob Nader says problems caused by opioid abuse and misuse over the last few years have driven up his calls for service as officers are “called to deal with everything from overdoses, prostitution and thefts to other such crimes committed to feed the addiction.” The impact grows as abusers of prescription opioids morph into heroin addicts.
- Covington EMS Director David Geiger said his budget for Narcan - a drug administered by paramedics to counteract the life-threatening effects of opioid overdoses - increased from $9,000 in Fiscal Year 2016 to almost $54,000 a year later. That doesn’t count an additional $4,000 for bag valve masks that year. The spike in opioid-related overdose calls in summer 2016 was a major reason that Fire Department calls as a whole ran 500 to 1,000 calls higher than average that year, he said. “It’s drastically affected my budget,” Geiger said.
- City Neighborhood Services Director Ken Smith said the ripple effect of opioid addiction is also being felt in an increased number of individuals unable to sustain housing or care for themselves or their children. “This has resulted in increased stress on the resources for our emergency responders, our social safety net and our schools,” Smith said. “Opioid addiction is impacting every resident of our city directly or indirectly - whether they realize it or not.”
Bartlett said the City settled on Bonar, Bucher & Rankin because it wanted a local firm that was familiar with the City and its residents, that had experience in these type of suits and that had a reasonable fee proposal.
The firm will work with other law firms, including three from New York, who have national experience with this type of litigation. It’s likely that Covington could see its case combined with similar lawsuits in a legal mechanism called multi-district litigation.
The gist of the lawsuits filed thus far is that opioid manufacturers, distributors and prescribers have been reckless and deceptive in the use of opioids to treat pain, causing long-term dependency and a growing public health crisis that has drained governments’ budgets.
Numbers from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention illustrate the scope of the problem.
In 2016, the number of overdose deaths per 100,000 people blamed on all drugs was 33.5 in Kentucky, the fifth-highest rate in the country and up from 23.6 in 2010.
Nationwide, 40 percent of overdose deaths are attributed to prescription opioids.
According to the CDC, some 74.9 opioid prescriptions were written for every 100 people in Kenton County in 2016, compared to the U.S. average of 66.5. The Kentucky average is far worse, at 97.2.
Those numbers are actually down from 10 years ago, when 93.77 opioid prescriptions were written for every 100 people in Kenton County, compared to 72.4 in the overall nation and 122.6 in Kentucky.
Under former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, who was governor 2007-15, the governor’s office and the General Assembly acted aggressively to rein in reckless opioid prescribing practices and regulate so-called pill mills. But some law enforcement officials say that drove many people addicted to prescription pain-killers to move to illegal opiates like heroin, creating another set of problems.
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