Harford County will join the growing list of Maryland counties in suing opioid manufacturers and distributors for their alleged roles in spurring an abuse crisis that has reached epidemic proportions, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman said Tuesday.
In his annual State of the County Address delivered in the County Council chambers in Bel Air Tuesday evening, Glassman said he will direct the county’s Law Department to draw up a request for proposals for such a lawsuit.
The county will use the Request for Proposal process to select an outside firm to handle the suit, according to county government spokesperson Cindy Mumby.
“We are not joining anybody’s lawsuit,” Mumby said Wednesday. “We are initiating our own.”
Prescription drugs have been blamed as a key factor in getting people addicted to opioids, leading them to harder drugs such as heroin and fentanyl.
More than 80 deaths in Harford were blamed on opioid overdoses in 2017 on top of more than 50 in 2016, according to the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, which has responded to more than 600 overdose calls in the past three years.
The county does not have a timeline regarding filing a suit. Mumby said county leaders, through the lawsuit, want to recover the costs Harford has incurred to fight its opioid epidemic as well as any future costs.
A full dollar amount has not been established — Mumby said government officials will consider their direct costs, such as money allocated to the Office of Drug Control policy for addiction treatment and prevention, and costs incurred by allied agencies such as the Harford County Sheriff’s Office.
Glassman allocated $100,000 in fiscal 2016 for treatment and prevention, doubled it to $200,000 the next fiscal year and increased it to $250,000 for this fiscal year, Mumby said.
The county executive said Tuesday he plans to allocate $250,000 to establish a 24-hour crisis center for people dealing with addiction or mental health issues, on top of what he will fund for addiction prevention and treatment in fiscal 2019. That line item has not been set yet, Mumby said.
The Office of Drug Control policy has a budget of $1.11 million for all of its functions, according to the fiscal 2018 budget posted on the county’s website.
Mumby said the county’s direct costs are “not the sum total of costs associated with fighting the opioid epidemic, but that is a starting point.”
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz announced plans this week to file a federal lawsuit against drug companies, and Anne Arundel County filed suit in local Circuit Court last week.
Both county governments allege drug manufacturers and distributors pressured doctors to prescribe opioids and misrepresented the risks of addiction, The Baltimore Sun reported.
Cecil County also filed suit against opioid manufacturers, the Cecil Whig reported.
Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler, who was in the audience during the State of the County address, lauded Glassman’s plans for the crisis center and expressed his support for joining other counties in suing opioid manufacturers.
Gahler said “overprescription by the medical providers is what has led us into the high loss of life and the overdoses that we’re seeing.”
“We know from our three years of experience, looking at this from the treatment angle as well as the law enforcement angle, that when we touch these people, that’s the time that we can have the most impact and steer them to a path of treatment, and having a place to put them is huge,” the sheriff said of a crisis center. “We don’t have that now, and the county executive has taken a big step in that direction, and that’s great.”
A representative of the national trade association for prescription drug distributors, the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, countered the accusations.
“As distributors, we understand the tragic impact the opioid epidemic has on communities across the country,” John Parker, a senior vice president, said in an emailed statement Wednesday. “We are deeply engaged in the issue and are taking our own steps to be part of the solution – but we aren’t willing to be scapegoats. “
Distributors handle storage, transportation and delivery of medications from manufacturers to pharmacies and healthcare providers, “based on prescriptions from licensed physicians,” but they do not manufacture, market, prescribe or dispense them, Parker said.
“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,” Parker stated.
“We are ready to have a serious conversation about solving a complex problem and are eager to work with political leaders and all stakeholders in finding forward-looking solutions,” he added.
Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph Cassilly, who has been dealing with drug cases — including heroin — since he started his career as a prosecutor in the late 1970s, expressed concerns about making a direct link between prescription drugs and the opioid crisis.
He said some people report they got addicted to heroin through prescription drugs, but others say they got to it through marijuana and others through “nothing at all.”
“How do you ... connect the opioid problem to painkillers?” Cassilly asked Wednesday. “It’s going to be interesting to see how they want to proceed with that and prove that.”
Cassilly, who has been state’s attorney since 1982, will step down at the end of his term this year. He said drugs have been in an issue in Harford County throughout his career, but trends have shifted among heroin, cocaine and prescription medication — two of his prosecutors have been assigned to the Harford County Task Force full time since the 1990s.
“We’ve had heroin problems [before],” he said. “I don’t think it’s ever been this bad — the number of overdoses.”
Cassilly, who acknowledged county leaders have not kept overdose tallies in the manner they are now, said adding fentanyl, a powerful painkiller, to heroin “makes this [epidemic] that much worse.”
This story has been updated from an earlier version.