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The same day that Baton Rouge filed a federal lawsuit against nine pharmaceutical companies, Covington hired legal counsel to do the same, joining the growing number of municipal and state governments taking on the pharmaceutical industry over the cost of dealing with prescription opioid addiction.

The Covington City Council voted last week to authorize Mayor Mike Cooper to hire a law firm to represent the city in civil litigation.

Lawyers William C. Lozes and Ralph Alexis, of Porteous, Hainkel & Johnson LLP, will represent Covington in a class-action lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors.

No suit has been filed by Covington yet, but Alexis said the suit will name the same big pharmaceutical companies that others have sued. It's not yet clear where the suit will be filed, he said.

The City Council, which voted 7-0 last week to authorize the move, said the city has suffered damages "as a direct result of having to address civil, criminal and health care needs associated with people affected with addiction to opioids."

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Cooper said other municipalities are likely to follow suit.

The Jefferson Parish Council discussed the possibility of hiring legal counsel for such litigation in October, and the state Department of Health filed a lawsuit in September.

"Hopefully, we recover some of the costs ... and put the money into treatment programs to address the problem firsthand,” Cooper said at the council meeting.

Police Chief Tim Lentz, who launched Operation Angel, which allows addicts to turn themselves and their drugs in to law enforcement with the promise of help rather than arrest, called the decision to sue a bold move but one he hopes will succeed.

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"This costs the community money, not just my agency but emergency rooms, counseling, treatment — it's not cheap," Lentz said. "A lady called me the other day to get help for her son and said it was going to cost $1,000 a day to get treatment."

Lentz compared the litigation to suits years ago against big tobacco companies. "There will probably be the same arguments," he said. "At the end of the day, opioids cause people to die. Tobacco takes years. This can kill you in a couple of days."

Stuart Smith, the head consultant of a national legal team that is working with law firms including Porteous Hainkel & Johnson, said that drug companies and their distributors exaggerated the benefits of opioids and downplayed the risks, failing to warn doctors of how addictive they are.

The opioid litigation differs from the tobacco suits in a critical way, Smith said. Cities and counties did not end up seeing much money from the tobacco litigation. When the state attorneys general settled the case, the money for the most part went into states' general funds.

"They (local governments) are making sure that doesn't happen again, by hiring their own counsel," Smith said.

In Louisiana, there's been a struggle between the Edwards administration and Attorney General Jeff Landry over who will control the lawsuit. Landry wants to hire Mike Moore, the former Mississippi attorney general who was the first to sue cigarette manufacturers in the 1990s over the health care costs of sick smokers. He asked the 19th Judicial District Court to allow the attorney general to "supersede" the state Department of Health in the lawsuit filed in late September.

Nationally, the number of plaintiffs continues to grow. Private lawsuits that started in West Virginia and Missouri have grown to include 13 to 14 states, and others are in the process of hiring lawyers to sue, Smith said. Plaintiffs include hospitals, nonprofit health providers, rehab centers, coroners, foster care agencies, police departments and Indian tribes.

They also include guardians of babies born addicted to opioids.

Brent Bell, a certified physician's assistant who has a doctorate in alternative and natural medicines, is a medical expert working for the national legal team. He said the human cost of opioid abuse is staggering and will continue to grow, noting that in 2005, one in 1,000 babies was born addicted, while by 2015, that had climbed to four in 1,000.

The average hospital stay for a newborn with opioid abstinence syndrome is 28 to 32 days, he said, and the infants show horrific symptoms of withdrawal. "They are the innocent victims," Bell said.

Bell said that Arizona has been leading the way in providing firefighters, paramedics, emergency responders and even teachers with Narcan, a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. But arming people with an antidote is not the same as addressing the underlying problem, he said.

Covington police are using nasal Narcan to treat overdose victims, Lentz said. Initially, he paid for the drug with asset forfeiture money. Since then, the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative has provided the funding, Lentz said. He is on that group's national committee.

What Lentz hopes to see from the lawsuit is more funding for treatment. "Right now, we have to rely so much on faith-based programs. The people we deal with don't have insurance," he said. Even those who do might get money for only 20 days of treatment for addiction, he said.

In Baton Rouge, Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome announced the lawsuit, saying that Baton Rouge residents bear the burden of the epidemic's cost.

Baton Rouge had 89 deadly overdoses related to opioids in 2017, and in 2016 overdose deaths there outnumbered homicides, the lawsuit says.

Costs outlined in the suit include medical care for people addicted to opioids, treatment of infants born addicted to the drugs, law enforcement response to calls about overdoses and caring for children of drug-addicted parents.

City Hall's health insurance and worker's compensation policies have covered the costs of prescription opiates without the patients knowing how addictive those drugs could be, the Baton Rouge suit says.

Representatives for the pharmaceutical companies and distributors named in the Baton Rouge lawsuit have pushed back against the allegations Thursday.

"We maintain that the allegations made in the lawsuits against our company are baseless and unsubstantiated," said Jessica Castles Smith, spokeswoman for Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., which is the pharmaceutical company for Johnson and Johnson. Janssen is also named as a defendant in the Baton Rouge suit. "Our actions in the marketing and promotion of our opioid pain medicines were appropriate and responsible," she said in an email.

Smith said the company recognizes the public health problems with opioid addiction and will "look forward to being part of the ongoing dialogue and finding ways to address the crisis."

The national trade association for wholesale drug distributors, the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, also denied culpability in the opioid epidemic. A spokesman for the alliance, which represents McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen, said they will not be scapegoats.

“Given our role, the idea that distributors are solely responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and how it is regulated," said John Parker, a senior vice president for the HDA.

Parker described distributors as "logistics companies," saying it's their job to focus on storage, transport and delivery of drugs and not the prescription or dispersion of them. He added that they, too, are eager to find solutions to the opioid epidemic.

Editor's note: This article was updated Jan. 25, 2018 to add responses from representatives for pharmaceutical and drug distribution companies that were named in the Baton Rouge lawsuit.

Staff writer Andrea Gallo contributed to this report. 

 

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.