© The Stoneham Independent

STONEHAM, MA - The Board of Selectmen will entertain the possibility of suing major pharmaceutical corporations for financial damages associated with the town's response to a regional opioid crisis that has claimed the lives of dozens of town residents and impacted an untold number of local families.

During a Board of Selectmen meeting last Monday night in Town Hall, the town officials agreed to schedule a consultation with lawyers from the Massachusetts Opioid Litigation Attorneys (MOLA) consortium, which is representing local communities in lawsuit being filed against five of Big Pharma's biggest drug makers and distributors.

Comprised of seven national law firms, including Boston-based Sweeney Mulligan Law, LLP, MOLA is already representing a number of Massachusetts communities attempting to recoup money steered away from municipal coffers as a result of the opioid epidemic.

"There are a group of attorneys taking on cases on behalf of towns to go after large pharmaceutical companies," Town Administrator Thomas Younger explained at the recent meeting. "We can schedule them to come in and make a presentation."

According to the Mass. Municipal Association (MMA), a political advocacy group to which the Town of Stoneham is a member, cities and towns are trying to recover funds associated with the provision of EMS and emergency-worker responses to overdoses, Medicare and Medicaid payments, law enforcement expenses, and other costs related to responding to the immediate and long-term response to the crisis.

During the first three months of 2018, according to the most recently available data compiled by the Mass. Department of Public Health, there were 201 confirmed deaths from opioid-related causes across the state. DPH suspects that figure will be revised to as many as 500 casualties.

The current death rates are on pace to match opioid-related casualties in Massachusetts in 2017, when more than 2,000 residents died.

Though current year figures are not yet available, Stoneham had at least eight confirmed fatal opioid overdoses in 2017. Between 2012 and 2017, some 27 individuals were recorded as dying in Stoneham from fatal overdoses.

Local authorities have previously explained the number of fatalities involving Stoneham's native sons and daughters is much higher, as many people with strong ties to the community died outside of Stoneham's borders. Public safety officials like Police Chief James McIntyre and Fire Chief Matthew Grafton have also explained the toll from the opioid epidemic would likely be much worse, were it not for life-saving drugs like Narcan or nasal naloxone, which reverses the effects of an overdose.

According to DPH data, there were at least 91 such non-fatal overdoses in the community over the last two years.

Besides purchasing Narcan, Stoneham has also tried to combat the opioid epidemic by hiring a full-time communities addictions coordinator, who works directly with families and addicts seeking treatment and other resources for substance abuse disorders.

First responders have also formed a new partnership with regional health care providers like Winchester Hospital, while the town's Substance Abuse Coalition, a quasi-public advocacy group formed in 2014, just recently obtained $625,000 in federal funding to increase education and awareness efforts about the dangers of drug abuse.

Back in 2014, city leaders in Chicago, Ill. became the first to back the filing of a federal lawsuit against drug makers like Pudue Pharma, which developed the potent OxyContin brand painkiller that resulted in an initiate wave of opioid-abuse and dependence across the nation beginning in 1995.

Proponents of initiating legal action contend drug-makers like Purdue Pharma, which first marketed Oxycontin and similar opioid-based prescriptions as carrying a low-risk of dependence, say pharmaceutical firms waited far too long to acknowledge the addictive risks of the drugs.

In December of 2017, the town of Greenfield, which has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic that has claimed thousands of lives in Massachusetts, became the first community in the state to file a lawsuit against drug makers.

As of late February, a total of 30 communities across the street had pledged to join the movement of suing pharmaceutical corporations to recoup municipal costs incurred as a result of combating the opioid epidemic.

According to Younger, law firms will represent Stoneham in a lawsuit at no upfront cost, though legal representatives do intend to collect roughly 25 percent of any financial settlement resulting from the cases.

"This allows each community to determine how much they think they're [entitled to in compensation]," said the town administrator, explaining why some municipal leaders prefer to the MOLA arrangements over a class-action lawsuit.

According to the MMA, the federal suits accuse drug makers of misrepresenting the risks of opioid prescriptions, while distributors ignored glaring evidence of irregular and suspicious sales orders.

"Most of the opioid cases focus on five major pharmaceutical companies: Purdue Pharma, Endo Health Solutions, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and subsidiary Cephalon, Johnson & Johnson and subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals, and Allergan. The three major drug distributors named in the most cases are AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp., Cardinal Health Inc., and McKesson Corp," a recent story in a MMA publication explained.

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