ENTERPRISE — Wallowa County will join 10 other Oregon counties and the city of Portland in a lawsuit against major pharmaceutical companies over practices that lead to opioid addiction, the county commissioners agreed Wednesday, May 19.
The commissioners agreed to the move upon advice of county counsel Paige Sully.
“As I previously discussed with each of you independently, 10 Oregon counties and the city of Portland have hired counsel and engaged in a lawsuit against a number of major pharmaceutical companies in the United States,” Sully said. “It’s a lawsuit that’s been tried in a number of different states having to do with inappropriate marketing and selling of pharmaceuticals leading to folks becoming addicted to opioids and the resulting negative consequences that have occurred. It’s my understanding that the 10 litigants in the state of Oregon are in discussions with the defendants, who are anxious to settle, but only if the nonlitigant counties in the state of Oregon join in the settlement.”
She said the defendants don’t want to settle with one group and have additional groups bring suits at a later date.
“We’ve been contacted by Brad Anderson, a county counsel for Washington County, about participating in those settlement discussions,” she told the commissioners. “What they’re asking us to do is … if we are a party to the settlement and we receive a benefit from the settlement — some funds — we will waive and release the defendants from any further litigation from Wallowa County.”
Sully said any benefit received from the suit would come with strings.
The funds won’t be available “for whatever purpose,” she said, but they would be “designed to be used to mitigate, resolve and address the negative consequences of opioid addiction.”
Such uses could include addiction treatment, mental health resources, law enforcement, district attorney and perhaps probation and parole, though Sully said she hasn’t yet seen any settlement documents outlining the required uses.
She also said the counties can avoid the trap funneling money through Salem often can be.
“We’re getting something for nothing here,” she said. “It will allow the counties to structure the settlement such that the funds will come to actual counties and not to the state of Oregon for the state of Oregon to determine how to release it to the counties.”
Commissioner Todd Nash said he sees this as an opportunity for the county to gain in joining a suit against pharmaceutical companies and benefit from it, where it might not be able to do so independently.
“I saw no downside whatsoever and Wallowa County’s ability to take on ‘big pharma’ on something like this is not really credible or legitimate to consider,” he said.
Commissioner John Hillock agreed.
“I just it’s appropriate to stand in solidarity with these other counties and do the right thing,” he said.
Mental health authority ends
In another matter, the commissioners voted to relinquish the county’s mental health authority to the Oregon Health Authority. The move was the culmination of previous discussions of the issue.
Chantay Jett, executive director for the Wallowa Valley Center for Wellness, which serves as the county’s mental health department, was present at last week’s meeting to support the commissioners’ move.
“We’ve had this discussion about county government being involved in mental health, an area they’re not very expert in — would that be a good word to use?” she said.
“... Saying we’re not experts is a very polite way of saying we know absolutely nothing,” Nash joked.
“We need the service occasionally,” Commissioner Susan Roberts agreed.
After discussing this with the county for a couple years, Jett said, “We’ve come to the conclusion that it’s probably time to let us go out on our own and contract directly with the Oregon Health Authority. So if we are to do that, that means the county will relinquish their local mental health authority because it sort of becomes a moot point at that time. … (relinquishing) would sort of force us — in a good way — to contract directly with the Oregon Health Authority.”
She expressed her appreciation for past county support and said the move would benefit both the center and the county.
“It’s been an administrative burden on you to be the ‘pass-through’ for a lot of different funding streams,” she said. “Mental health funding is very complicated. We have 15 different programs all under one roof and about 20 different funding streams for those programs. … So it relieves a burden for your office, as well.”
Hillock said the board’s move is part of a larger issue.
“For those of you who aren’t aware,” he told the audience, “what brings this to a head is the state’s requirement for the counties to have the liability for the services that they provide. All of the counties have voiced this opinion to the state that we don’t want to have the liability. In some cases in the past, we didn’t have liability, but they’ve brought it into all the contracts now. It’s going to probably affect us in other areas … it’s something that’s going to have to be worked on with the Department of Justice when they come down with these contracts. Some of the agencies are willing to scratch it, but then the DOJ puts it back in.”
Nash agreed, saying, “There were 13 other counties that opted out and weren’t willing to sign the intergovernmental agreements.”
Jett noted that what Nash and Hillock were referring to was intergovernmental agreements with the state over who would handle contracts for developmental disabilities. Wallowa County rejected such an agreement April 7.
“So 13 counties, led by Lane County, rejected those contracts, so about a month ago,” she said.
Nash noted that the rejection didn’t come without consequences.
“Lane County actually got burned on that and they’re in litigation right now,” he said.
He also suggested waiting to make a decision on relinquishing county authority until the public could comment. But Jett said it was important to get it done soon so the center can obtain a new contract. As a result, the commissioners voted unanimously to relinquish authority.