Miller County may join a growing list of counties and cities throughout the state that are joining multi-district lawsuits aimed at holding large pharmaceutical companies accountable for pushing opioid painkillers.

 Miller County may join a growing list of counties and cities throughout the state that are joining multi-district lawsuits aimed at holding large pharmaceutical companies accountable for pushing opioid painkillers.

On Friday, Miller County commissioners and Prosecuting Attorney Ben Winfrey will be meeting with a representative of one of the legal firms involved in the litigation.

The suits are similar to those involving tobacco companies in the 1990s that resulted in large settlements with states. The cases are done on a contingency basis with any proceeds that may be gained in a settlement shared among those who have joined the lawsuits.

There is no risk for joining, but there is the potential for recovering funds that could be used to combat the problems created by the opioid crisis.

The intention is to force manufacturers and distributors to be held accountable. If the suits are successful, they could lead to more funding for local governments to recoup the costs of law enforcement and fire departments dealing with opioid addicts, or could increase funding for mental health and addiction services in communities that are affected.

While methamphetamine continues to be the largest drug/crime problem in Miller County, Winfrey said opioids are also a problem. In the first seven months of 2018, the Missouri State Highway Patrol Uniform Crime Reporting System shows Miller County has seen four arrests for possession of opium or cocaine and their derivates, which includes heroin, morphine and codeine.

There have been 39 arrests for sale/manufacturing or possession of synthetic narcotics, which includes drugs like demerol and methadone and is a category described as “manufactured narcotics which can cause true drug addiction.”

Arrests for possession of non-narcotics like amphetamine total 75 so far this year. These numbers do not include arrests for sales or manufacturing of these drugs. According to the Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services, Miller County had six confirmed deaths directly due to non-heroin opioid overdoses between 2013 and 2017 and one from heroin.

There were 98 ER visits directly attributable to opioid abuse by Miller County residents from 2012 to 2016. Winfrey said it is too soon to predict whether Miller County will ultimately join the lawsuits. However, he believes the county needs to at least discuss the possibility. According to information from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, every day, more than 115 Americans die from overdosing on opioids.

The misuse of and addiction to opioids — including prescription pain relievers, heroin and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl — is a serious national crisis that affects public health as well as social and economic welfare.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the total "economic burden" of prescription opioid misuse alone in the United States is $78.5 billion a year, including the costs of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment and criminal justice involvement.

According to information on the opioid crisis and its impact on Missouri from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2016, there were 914 opioid-related overdose deaths­­­ in Missouri — a rate of 15.9 deaths per 100 persons—compared to the national rate of 13.3 deaths per 100,000 persons. From 2012 to 2016 heroin overdose deaths increased from 210 to 380 deaths. Synthetic opioid overdose deaths have been increasing dramatically since 2013 from 97 to 441 deaths.

NIDA data shows in 2015, Missouri providers wrote 90 opioid prescriptions per 100 persons (5.2 million prescriptions). In the same year, the average U.S. rate was 70 opioid prescriptions per 100 persons. Lake Sun editorial staff Amy Wilson contributed to this story.