- By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD — Winnebago County and the City of Rockford plan to file a lawsuit against companies that distribute and manufacture opioids, officials announced Tuesday.
The announcement comes a month after DuPage, Kane, Will, McHenry and Lake counties accused several companies, including Purdue Pharma, Abbott Laboratories, Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Cephalon, Johnson & Johnson, Janssen Pharmaceuticals and Endo Health Solutions, of “aggressive and fraudulent marketing of prescription opioid painkillers,” leading to what lawyers are calling a “corporate-caused drug epidemic.”
Rockford and Winnebago County’s decision to bring against the industry was sparked six months ago when State’s Attorney Joe Bruscato and County Board Chairman Frank Haney engaged in talks about what area officials say is a full-blown opioid crisis that continues to complement an often deadly and growing heroin epidemic.
“As that conversation proceeded, we talked about what could be done on a local level to assist,” Bruscato said.
However, because the Office of the Illinois Attorney General typically handles consumer issues, Bruscato said a plan to battle this one would be unique, possible litigation without the AG.
“We did our due diligence, if you will,” Bruscato said. “That included a trip down to Springfield with the Illinois attorney general and number of my colleagues from across the state–elected and sitting state’s attorneys.”
Bruscato said his team also interviewed drug industry experts.
“One of the responsibilities of the state’s attorney’s office is to be the lawyer for the county and for the citizens,” he said. “The City of Rockford’s responsibility is to represent the citizens of the city and take up any potential litigation on their behalf.”
And both governments plan to do just that, the three-term state’s attorney said, to stop what he called profiteering at the expense of the citizenry.
“(They) expect our taxpayers to clean up the mess,” he said. “These are your community leaders standing up today, saying, ‘We’ve had enough.'”
Bruscato said if the Winnebago County Board and Rockford City Council approve the lawsuit, it will ask the court to hold companies responsible for various costs associated with the local opioid addiction crisis. The suit is also aimed at changing the way the drugs are marketed and distributed.
Ann Callis, of Goldenberg Heller Antognoli P.C., will lead the litigation team on behalf the municipalities. A former judge, Callis is part of a national consortium of lawyers that represents more than 100 public clients in 11 states.
“I’ve seen the devastation of the opioid epidemic on our communities,” Callis said. “I feel it is my particular duty to represent these communities in overcoming this epidemic caused by these distributors and caused by these manufacturers.”
If the suit is approved, litigation will not cost the taxpayers anything, Callis said.
“Families are being devastated,” Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara added. “It is imperative that drug manufacturers change their current practices. Data shows that past use of prescription opioids is the strongest risk factor for starting and continuing to use heroin.”
Haney said a lawsuit won’t end the crisis, but it will serve as an important piece of the overall puzzle. It’s a vital piece, though. In asking local leaders to support the complaint, Haney said he was surprised to learn how many local residents are dealing with addiction.
“It’s personal,” Haney said. “And don’t take my word for it. Ask our first responders.”
The suit will name various companies, such as McKesson, AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health.
A leading pharmaceutical distributor, McKesson reported revenues of $198.5 billion in 2017, and paid $13 million in fines in 2008 for failing to report massive orders of the pain medication hydrocodone.
AmerisourceBergen is a wholesaler responsible for 20 percent of all pharmaceuticals distributed in the United States. The company was sued in 2012 by the State of West Virginia, which alleged that it contributed to the state’s pain-pill epidemic. Like McKesson, AmerisourceBergen is a leading distributor of hydrocodone.
Cardinal Health agreed to pay $34 million in civil penalties in 2008 to settle allegations that it failed to report suspicious orders of hydrocodone. The agreement followed the suspension of its distribution facilities in Florida, New Jersey and Washington.
Rockford and Winnebago County’s complaint will be filed in U.S. District Court. R.