Cuyahoga, Summit Counties 'Carry The Torch' In Opioid Trial

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Eric Stimac’s path to addiction began with a work injury.

Several years ago, he said, he was working a side job on a day off.

“It was some stage flooring,” he said. “We were unloading off the back of a box truck, and it fell off of the lift gate and then landed on my foot and crushed my foot.”

Stimac couldn’t walk for months. He was prescribed Oxycontin, then Percocet and eventually became addicted to the pills.

“I had somebody really, really close to me that overdosed on heroin and died,” Stimac said. “And I didn’t know how to deal with it at the time, so my first thought was, well, if this is something that they were willing to give their life over, what’s the deal with it?

“So that’s when I tried heroin for the first time.”

After an arrest, Stimac sought treatment at IBH Addiction Recovery Center, a residential facility in the Portage Lakes area, where we sat down to talk on a porch overlooking the campus.

“I’ve learned a new sense of purpose in my life, you know?” Stimac said. “I’ve learned how to interact with the community, how to give back.”

Many in Ohio and across the country have gone down the same road —  starting with prescription pills before moving to street drugs such as heroin or fentanyl.

That’s why local governments are trying to hold drug companies accountable for lighting the fuse of an addiction crisis that has since exploded

In October, Cuyahoga and Summit counties will get their day in court. They’ll be the first of more than 2,000 local governments, Native American tribes and others to present their case against the drug industry before a jury. They accuse drug manufacturers of downplaying the addictive nature of opioids. And they accuse drug distributors of ignoring warning signs and shipping suspicious orders of pills.

The plaintiffs say the waves of addiction and overdose deaths that followed have strained local communities.

“An average episode here is going to cost between $15,000, $20,000,” IBH Executive Director Jonathan Wylly said. “And when you multiply that just from the impact of the opiate epidemic, and just from the people we see here who have that as an issue, you’re talking millions of dollars.”

Treatment centers like IBH often bill Medicaid for those costs, he said, and also receive funding from county addiction and mental health boards.

And then there’s the cost to medical examiners, first responders, families who have lost loved ones to overdoses and foster care systems taking care of the children who end up secondary victims of addiction.

“There’s no number they can come up with that’s going to meet the societal cost of what the opiate epidemic has meant to this state,” Wylly said.

Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro wants to recoup money from the drug industry to continue fighting the crisis, she said in her August state of the county address.

“We did not anticipate being selected to carry the torch for hundreds of counties and thousands of communities across the country,” she said. “However, we have taken the challenge head on.”

Summit County alleges sales representatives from multiple opioid manufacturers made more than 900 visits to local prescribers over a two-and-a-half year period. Along with the visits came payments to prescribers, the suit claims — for travel, speaking, food.

Local governments also allege distributors failed to report suspiciously large or frequent opioid orders to federal authorities.

“The facts of the case are just incredibly strong. They’re devastating,” Case Western Reserve University professor Andrew Pollis said. “They demonstrate, really, a profit-driven desire to exploit the fact that opioids are inherently physically addictive.”

Drug companies deny the allegations against them. They argue plaintiffs can’t prove the opioid crisis was caused by particular manufacturers, rather than by people dealing illicit drugs.

Some drug makers have settled with Cuyahoga and Summit directly — allowing the firms to avoid the upcoming trial. Mallinckrodt agreed to a $24 million settlement. Endo settled for $11 million. Allergan settled for $5 million.

Pollis said the courts aren’t the best place to distribute money to counties. That job should be in the hands of policymakers, he says.

“But doing it willy-nilly, state by state, one case after another,” he said, “and then having these 50 states fight with their respective political subdivisions over how the money gets distributed or who’s entitled to recover it in the first place—that just seems absurd.”

U.S. District Judge Dan Polster has urged a settlement from the start of this case. But with many defendant companies still holding out, it’s likely that deciding who is responsible for the opioid crisis will be up to a jury.

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