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Nassau County sues opioid manufacturers

OxyContin, in 80 mg pills, in a 2013

OxyContin, in 80 mg pills, in a 2013 file image. Credit: TNS / Liz O. Baylen

Nassau County on Monday sued nearly two dozen pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors and doctors to recoup taxpayer-funded costs of fighting the opioid epidemic.

In a complaint filed in State Supreme Court in Mineola, lawyers for the county argued that the defendants engaged in a “sophisticated and highly deceptive and unfair marketing campaign” that aimed to expand the use of highly addictive prescription painkillers from short-term, post-surgical cases to everyday treatments.

As more people became hooked — and manufacturers profited — overdoses spiked and Nassau spent millions of dollars on health care, social services and public safety programs to address the problem, the complaint says.

Nearly 200 people in Nassau died of opioid overdoses in 2016, a record, officials said. Opioid-related emergency room admissions in Nassau increased by 75 percent between 2010 and 2014, according to the state Department of Health.

“The pharmaceutical companies walk away with billions of dollars, while the county is stuck paying millions and millions to clean up the mess,” said attorney Salvatore Badala, of the Melville firm of Napoli Shkolnik, which filed the case on behalf of the county.

Nassau joins Suffolk and dozens of municipalities across the nation that are attempting to hold the pharmaceutical industry liable for the strain that the opioid epidemic has put on government.

Suffolk filed its suit last year. The case, which names 15 defendants, is pending.

Nassau’s suit names 16 drugmakers or their affiliates, three distributors and five doctors.

Purdue Pharma, a Nassau and Suffolk defendant and one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of prescription painkillers, said Monday that it has taken steps in recent years to reduce opioid abuse. They include promoting prescription drug monitoring programs and supporting access to Naloxone, an opioid overdose antidote.

“Pointing fingers will not solve the problem, nor will it help those who are suffering,” Purdue said in a statement. “We urge all stakeholders to seize the opportunity to work together so that collectively we can address this crisis.”

Another defendant is Merrick physician Michael Belfiore, who was charged last year in federal court with illegally distributing painkillers to patients, two of whom prosecutors said died of overdoses. Belfiore has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges.

“To put the blame on doctors who were really victims of a marketing campaign by big pharma, I think Nassau has got it all wrong,” said Thomas Liotti, Belfiore’s Garden City defense attorney.

Nassau’s lawsuit, which alleges negligence, fraud and false advertising, asks for unspecified damages from the defendants that Badala said would be in the “millions.”

Napoli Shkolnik, which this month sued many of the same defendants on behalf of Dayton, Ohio, will work on a contingency basis for Nassau, receiving a percentage of any settlements or judgments.

Jeffrey Reynolds, president of the Mineola-based Family and Children’s Association, a nonprofit that runs Nassau homeless shelters and treatment centers, said “the opioid crisis has impacted every single service we provide.”

Costs to Nassau could be calculated by hard figures such as increased police overtime and Medicaid payments for ER visits, Reynolds said, “but that’s before you even get into things like lost productivity.”

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