Kalamazoo County declares opioids 'public nuisance' ahead of class-action lawsuit

    FILE - In this Feb. 19, 2013 file photo, OxyContin pills are arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. A panel of federal judges will decide whether lawsuits filed on behalf of babies born to opioid-addicted mothers should be separated from a larger federal case. Lawyers representing the babies and their guardians say babies have been harmed directly by the opioid industry, unlike local governments, hospitals and other entities. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

    The Kalamazoo County Commission signed a document that declared opioids a public nuisance and signed a contract to join a national class-action lawsuit opioid against pharmaceutical companies during the Jan. 15 board meeting.

    Opioids cost people jobs, tear families apart, and, according to data provided by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, killed 44 people in Kalamazoo County in 2017.

    "I have at least one person, either a patient or a family member, every month frankly, that faces these issues,” said Kalamazoo County Commission Chair Julie Rogers, who is also a physical therapist at Borgess at Woodbridge Hills.

    Rogers said the declaration of opioids a public nuisance came at the advice of the law firm the county hired, as it prepares to take on the companies that produce these drugs.

    "This is a health problem, and it's a crisis reaching an emergent level, and sounding the alarm bells throughout our county, which we already kind of knew, but it just gives it a little bit more teeth."

    In addition to signing the declaration, Rogers signed a contract to join the national class-action opioid lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies. She said the two go hand in hand, and passed through the board 10-1.

    "People ask is this all about the money? And I say, absolutely not. To me, it's about injunctive relief," she said.

    Rogers said the reason for entering into the lawsuit was to help try to change the behavior of drug manufacturers. She said, in the last year, providers have become a little more cautious, but there is much room for improvement.

    Rogers played a big role in the county’s research into the opioid crisis, along with the county health department.

    The study found the number of accidental opioid related deaths doubled from 2015 to 2016.

    Rogers said a person is 25 percent likely to become addicted within seven days of using an opioid.

    Chad Johnson, a recovering addict, supports Rogers’ efforts.

    “It encompasses your whole life, and people that are addicts don’t want to be addicts, it just becomes what you are,” Chad Johnson said.

    Johnson said he struggled with an addiction to alcohol and opioids for 19 years and celebrated being 10-years clean in 2018. It’s something he said he has to work at every day.

    “My addiction’s right behind me waiting for me to be low, you know, to try to drag me down,” Johnson said.

    He has dedicated his life to helping other addicts by sitting on the board of Families Against Narcotics. He also works as the business development coordinator at Genemarkers, a clinical testing laboratory.

    Johnson said Genemarkers deals with gene expression and genotyping services. He said the lab has been working on a study of roughly 450 patients in Kalamazoo County, to see how well they respond to medications used to curb effects of opioid withdrawal. He said the goal would be to see if there are genetic markers to show predisposition to substance-use disorders, specifically opiates.

    He said the results were being looked over and Genemarkers would seek funding for the next leg of the project.

    Johnson said efforts to fight the opioid crisis should focus more on the care of patients, rather than punishment.

    “Addiction is a disease, and you know, punishing people for having a disease is counterproductive,” he said.

    Johnson also agreed with the importance of holding pharmaceutical companies accountable, but said that is just part of the solution. He said it’s important to learn why people use in the first place.

    "I think the bigger issue is not the substance. I think it's, you know, what goes on with people in general. So, you know, we can fight this epidemic, and then there'll be another one,” Johnson said.

    Rogers said other communities haven’t had a lot of success, so far, fighting pharmaceutical companies. She said the process has been tied up in courts and doesn’t see it coming to fruition for at least a few years.

    She said if Kalamazoo County were to win a settlement, the money should be used for both the prevention and treatment of addiction by the county.

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