Mercer Co. leaders ready to hold opioid drug companies responsible

MERCER, Pa. (WYTV) – The opioid epidemic has cost Mercer County a stiff price. Now the county is suing drug companies, hoping it can be part of the solution.

Mercer County knows the drug problem isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s seen a 256 percent climb in the number of overdose deaths over the last three years. There were 16 overdose deaths in 2015. The number nearly doubled in 2016 and went up 30 percent last year with 41 deaths.

The county was doing four resuscitations a month, but now it’s up to two a day, signifying the problem is still around and getting worse.

“We are at our wit’s end. This is important. We have people dying. The amount of overdoses taking place in our community is just unacceptable,” said County Commissioner Tim McGonigle.

A year ago, the county started providing counselors to route people to the best treatment while in jail, and then help them when they’re released.

There’s no lapse in getting help, but the problems also echo through the social services system. The opioid epidemic has affected children and youth services, along with behavioral health services.

“With the resulted cost to the county and just society as a result of that, the drug companies should take in the responsibility in taking care of these people,” said County Commissioner Scott Boyd.

Mercer County was one of the early adopters of naloxone — the opioid overdose reversal drug — and even uses another antidote called Vivitrol at the jail, but that can cost $800 per shot.

Right now, the county is suing some pharmaceutical companies, believing that overprescribing pain drugs has created this problem. Mercer County claims the drug companies knew there was a danger of addiction.

“Marketing of drugs went over the line of saying there were no addictive qualities when they knew that there were,” Boyd said.

The county has hired a law firm to sue some of the major drug makers, hoping to recoup some of the money.

“There’s not a pill, there’s not a program that is going to be a stop to the opioid epidemic. It has to be a full-frontal attack and we need the pharmaceutical companies on board to stop that,” said County Commissioner Matt McConnell.

So far, county leaders say the drug companies haven’t shown an interest in helping with the problem. Commissioners hope a lawsuit will catch their attention.

“What’s more important is these pharmaceutical companies stop and the doctors stop overprescribing,” McConnell said.

Studies have shown that heroin users can get their start with prescription opioids. Commissioners want to make them aware of the situation and say the lawsuit isn’t about money.

“It’s not a money grab, it’s just another part to knocking on the door of the pharmaceutical companies and saying, ‘Hey, what are we doing about this problem?'” McGonigle said.

The presence of an opioid was identified in 85 percent of drug-related deaths statewide in Pennsylvania two years ago.

In January, Gov. Tom Wolf issued a state of emergency for the drug problem.