The opioid addiction epidemic that has ravaged Connecticut will never be made right for its victims, their families, and their friends. Through our courts, however, we can at least begin to ensure that the costs of this vast and senseless tragedy are shifted to the pharmaceutical companies that created and fueled it.
To do that, we must understand the many dimensions of what former Attorney General George Jepsen described to the Mirror as “the public health crisis of our time.” That means all the parties harmed by the opioid epidemic will need to have their days in court — and seats at the table in any settlement negotiations.
Fairness dictates that Connecticut’s municipalities be among them; for years, our communities have been forced to stretch their taxpayer-funded budgets and services in order to respond the opioid epidemic.
We should know. Each of us is the mayor of a Connecticut community that has been hit hard by the opioid crisis. We are Republicans and we are Democrats. We represent towns and cities. And we have recently joined together in a common effort to make sure that our communities are not left behind the other municipalities across America that are seeking to hold the big pharmaceutical companies responsible. For that reason, our communities, along with nearly 40 others across Connecticut, have filed civil lawsuits in state court naming as defendants these pharmaceutical companies.
We were disappointed to learn from the Mirror that former Attorney General Jepsen, who is now in private practice, is pushing a “state-centric” global settlement with opioid companies that seeks to freeze out the claims of these Connecticut municipalities. Such an approach to settlement will not serve Connecticut’s communities or their taxpayers.
Jepsen has argued that the municipalities’ involvement in the litigation will “mak[e] it much harder for the state led effort to convince the industry to agree to a comprehensive settlement.” Maybe. But this is not supposed to be easy. Any settlement with the pharmaceutical companies should reflect the true toll of their wrongdoing. That may, and should, be very, very hard for the companies.
A 2007 settlement between the attorney general and Purdue Pharma netted Connecticut just over $700,000 in cash and secured injunctive relief that manifestly failed to curb the opioid crisis in the state.
Past settlements between the opioid companies, state attorneys general, and the federal government have failed to put the brakes on the opioid crisis precisely because the penalties recovered were viewed as an acceptable “cost of doing business” by the pharmaceutical companies. For example, a 2007 settlement between the attorney general and Purdue Pharma netted Connecticut just over $700,000 in cash and secured injunctive relief that manifestly failed to curb the opioid crisis in the state. Yet in one of his final acts as attorney general, Mr. Jepsen filed another civil complaint against the same company in which he alleged that the opioid epidemic’s economic cost to Connecticut in 2016 alone was more than $10 billion.
The human cost of the opioid crisis in Connecticut has already been documented in chilling detail. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2016 there were 24.5 opioid overdose deaths for every 100,000 persons in the state. This statistic placed Connecticut among the top ten states for opioid overdose death rates — a tragic and unwanted distinction. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that Connecticut witnessed 1,072 opioid overdose deaths in 2017 alone.
As those of us in local government know only too well, the tragic overdose death statistics are only the visible tip of the iceberg in the opioid crisis. As the first lines of defense in this crisis, Connecticut towns and cities supply the first responders, the police, the medics, social workers and educators who serve and protect the public daily. Furthermore, the quality of life in our communities has been severely compromised by the impact of the epidemic on our schools, parks, libraries, and public spaces. Every year, millions upon millions of local tax dollars go into containing, abating, and desperately attempting to reverse the epidemic. These costs are extreme, direct and borne uniquely by the communities.
Mr. Jepsen has argued that only the state attorneys general, and not municipalities, are the proper parties to bring the opioid companies to account. Sadly, the historical record belies that opinion.
The statutory penalties that the Connecticut Attorney General is equipped to seek under the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act are insufficient to make our communities whole again and will likely not deter future bad conduct by the pharmaceutical companies. Yes, if our municipalities’ claims are permitted to go forward, we will have to prove that the injuries we sustained and public nuisances that must be abated, were caused by the pharmaceutical companies’ wrongdoing. But those injuries and nuisances are real, observable, and identifiable, and we will be in a position to know whether the defendants have taken adequate steps to make them right. More importantly, only the communities can vindicate these unique injuries.
Even if action by the attorney general was sufficient, there is no guarantee that it would yield any kind of meaningful recovery for Connecticut’s hard-hit towns and cities. Notoriously, the 1998 settlement between state attorneys general and tobacco companies resulted in billions of dollars flowing into state treasuries — but little, if any, reached the municipalities on the front lines of that public health crisis. Our communities cannot afford to be left on the sidelines in this instance, where the demands on so many government services provided by Connecticut towns and cities to combat the opioid epidemic exceed the municipal impact of tobacco use.
For a settlement to be effective, we must examine the epidemic’s causes, as well as its full impact on our society. We cannot do this with a huge piece of the puzzle — the injuries borne by our cities and towns — missing. Mr. Jepsen’s goal of making settlement “easy” is laudable, but it should not come at the expense of making the settlement as complete and fair as possible. Just as a state attorney general would not seriously consider abandoning a valid lawsuit because the federal government declared that the opioid epidemic is a public health emergency, neither should the cities and towns of Connecticut be asked to “stand down” in deference to the state attorney general.
Mr. Jepsen has argued elsewhere that the courts across America should, and will, dismiss municipalities’ lawsuits against the opioid companies. But, so far, that has happened in only one jurisdiction, Connecticut, while litigation has been allowed to proceed everywhere else. This doesn’t only hobble our communities. It hobbles the attorney general. There are over a thousand American counties, cities and towns that are currently seeking recoveries in opioid litigation. By remaining in the litigation, these communities are driving up the value of settlement for themselves and for their state attorneys general. In any negotiation, Connecticut will be disadvantaged by the exclusion of our communities and it is in nobody’s interest, other than the pharmaceutical companies, to force Connecticut municipalities to stand down.
We, as mayors, will not give up. We are currently working through the legislative and judicial appeals processes to push our communities’ claims forward. The reason is simple: We are grappling with a terrible crisis, and Connecticut’s towns and cities cannot be left behind.
Mayor Michael Passero, New London; Mayor Toni Harp, New Haven; Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr., Wallingford, and Mayor Erin Stewart, New Britain, are co-chairs of COST: Connecticut Opioid Strategy Task Force.
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