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opioid file photo

This 2013 file photo shows OxyContin pills arranged in a pharmacy.

As of this month, the city of Missoula, Missoula County and the state of Montana are now each — separately — involved in legal action against drug manufacturers in response to the opioid epidemic.

Indeed, the makers of OxyContin and other powerful painkillers are facing lawsuits from communities across the nation, including Montana, alleging that they pushed opioid sales while minimizing the risk of addiction and death from overdose.

In December 2017, Montana Attorney General Tim Fox filed suit against Purdue Pharma in Montana District Court. Purdue sought to move the case to federal court, where hundreds of similar cases have been filed, but it was returned to the District Court in Lewis and Clark County last year.

Purdue has denied any wrongdoing, noting that its medications are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. However, it also has paid millions to resolve lawsuits and settlements with more than 26 other states so far. While Montana’s suit wends its way through the courts, Fox has requested a preliminary injunction barring Purdue from marketing its products in Montana.

In the meantime, Missoula County also took up legal action, filing a suit in U.S. District Court that names some two dozen pharmaceutical companies as defendants. The county began exploring the possibility of litigation last fall, entering into a contract with a Seattle law firm that also is representing local governments in other states that are suing opioid manufacturers and distributors.

The city formally entered a similar agreement with a local law firm just this month, after councilors voted to proceed with litigation. Missoula will be piggybacking on a suit filed in U.S. District Court by the city of Great Falls and Anaconda-Deer Lodge and Lake counties against nearly a dozen pharmaceutical companies.

These lawsuits all attempt to quantify the community costs of opioid abuse, from the number of deaths to the rise in crime and increased burden on health and social services. In a nutshell, the suits allege that drug makers and markets encouraged physicians to prescribe opioids and provided inflated assurances that they are safe when in fact they are highly addictive and dangerous.

In a memo to city council members, Mayor John Engen’s Office compared the opioid lawsuits to tobacco settlements, noting, “Tobacco settlement money went to the State of Montana and was not proportionally allocated to communities based on local costs and impact.

“We believe that by joining plaintiffs through class action as a municipality, we stand to see direct benefit of settlement.”

The tactic of pursuing action separately also means that the city, county and state each negotiate their own method of paying legal fees. Missoula County signed a tiered agreement in which attorneys collect 20 percent of the total award if it is $10 million or less. The city agreed to pay up to 25 percent of any money received, plus associated attorney fees. Neither will pay any money up front, and if no money is awarded by the court, the attorneys will not collect anything either.

However, there’s good reason to believe the lawsuits will ultimately succeed in forcing the makers and marketers of powerful prescription painkillers to recognize the lasting damage linked directly to their products. Unfortunately, there’s no telling how long this process will take, or how much money Montana communities may stand to recover.

In the meantime, we must not sit back and wait for a cash infusion from drug companies to fund critical treatment services for people with addictions. Missoula must find the will and a way to provide local treatment for substance abuse, regardless of whether the substance is a prescription drug, meth or alcohol.

Missoula County counted 41 drug overdose deaths between 2014 and 2016, according to the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. This actually represented a slight decrease from the 47 fatal drug overdoses in Missoula County from 2013-2015, so the trend appears to be heading in the right direction.

Under Medicaid expansion, in place since 2015, Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services has provided outpatient treatment to more than 5,300 Montanans struggling with addiction. Another 1,600 or so have received residential treatment.

As Montana’s legislators wrestle with whether to renew Medicaid expansion, they ought to keep these numbers in mind — as well as the costs borne by communities now fighting back against the opioid epidemic.

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