HILO — It sounds too good to be true: A national law firm wants to sue Big Pharma on behalf of Hawaii County in a no-risk deal that has the county paying nothing if it loses, but sharing in any damage awards if it wins or settles.
“It all boils down to the opioid epidemic we have as a nation … as a state,” said Deputy Corporation Counsel Kaena Horowitz. “Manufacturers, distributors, those along the distribution chain, they on some level negligently and possibly knowingly prescribed and doled out these medications which resulted in addictions which resulted in deaths, which resulted in all sorts of mean, nasty, bad things.”
Most Hawaii County Council members, however, are dubious. Others have philosophical issues with blaming manufacturers for improper use of their products, while almost all want more information.
After a lengthy discussion earlier this month about opioid prescriptions, relying on confidential documents provided by the Corporation Counsel’s Office, the council Finance Committee agreed to take the matter up again at its Feb. 4 meeting.
Two freshman council members seemed inclined to support the measure.
“Those that are making billions, billions of dollars on the medications need to be called in check,” said Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas. “We have to stand up and say it’s not OK, because we’re losing loved ones and we’re losing family members. It’s lethal. They’re lethal drugs.”
Villegas likened it to manufacturers paying restitution to communities harmed by their products.
Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz said she needed more information before voting, but she seemed to be leaning toward a yes vote at the Jan. 8 meeting.
“At the end of the day, one life lost to opioid overdose is one too many, and at some point we need to exercise bold leadership and hold these people accountable for what they’re doing to our community,” Kierkiewicz said.
But Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder, also a freshman, disagreed a lawsuit was the appropriate response.
“On a society level, I feel like it’s someone suing McDonald’s because their coffee was really, really hot and their cup didn’t say, ‘really really hot,’” he said.
Kohala Councilman Tim Richards, who, as a veterinarian, has had a license to prescribe opioids for 30 years, disagreed that pharmaceutical companies pushed their products without appropriate warnings about the dangers of addiction.
“I do not disagree (that opioid addiction is) a problem in our nation and in our county,” Richards said. “If there are inappropriate manufacturers, I am all for it, but this is part of my professional life and I have yet to see it. … I have to equate it with holding a car manufacturer liable for the accident. Surely you wouldn’t have an accident if you didn’t have a car.”
Hawaii County has the highest rate of prescribing opioids of any county in the state, at a rate of 66.4 prescriptions per 100 people, double the prescribing rate for the City and County of Honolulu, according to Resolution 20.
The measure would give Corporation Counsel authority to hire on a contingency basis the New York City-based personal injury law firm Napoli Shkolnik and its local counsel, the Hawaii Accident Law Center from Honolulu.
Details about the potential lawsuit are sketchy, but attorneys would enter Hawaii County in multi-state litigation that’s been ongoing for about a year. The lawsuits center on manufacturers and distributors of opioids in particular.
Council Chairman Aaron Chung, of Hilo, and Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter didn’t see how being awarded money in a lawsuit would address the cause of opioid addiction in the county.
“It’s so enticing to get something for nothing, right? But there are other considerations here,” Chung said. “If we get money, it still won’t make things right. We’re only gong to be doing corrective action.”
Poindexter agreed — money helps, but it’s not enough. She and several other council members worried that litigation would raise the price of medications for those who need it, particularly seniors.
“I don’t think this approach is going to work. … We should be looking at the root cause of our opioid problem. The root cause is not the manufacturer,” Poindexter said. “The root causes are the processes that are not in place in our county, like physician education and how do physicians make sure that when they put people on pain meds that they get monitored through the substance abuse facilities that look at pain management medication.”
Kauai County has accepted the deal, but the state attorney general has not, according to county Corporation Counsel Joe Kamelamela. He said that means any compensation would come directly to the county, unlike the similar tobacco settlement agreement that had all the compensation going to the state.
“The information we get from police and prosecutors tells us this is a problem,” Kamelamela said. “Once we file it, we’re going to get better information. … The information that we have right now is persuading us to do something now for our community. … It’s a big problem.”