St. Louis and Mower Counties to sue Big Pharma companies for opioid crisis

The two Minnesota counties join some 60 others across the country who've already filed suit.

The two Minnesota counties join some 60 others across the country who've already filed suit. Associated Press

In St. Louis County, the jail roster spans 46 pages and 181 names.

In Mower County, a four-hour drive south from the Minnesota Arrowhead, the inmate population at the jail in Austin is less than half that. Neither suffers from a shortage of inmates locked up for drug crimes.

In St. Louis County, social services and treatment centers are swamped. The number of people seeking help for addictions to prescription medications like fentanyl, oxycodone, and Vicodin is higher than that of St. Paul, which has 100,000 more people than St. Louis County.

In Mower County, health and human services caseworkers regularly pay visits to homes with one parent. The other is in jail, AWOL, or sometimes dead from pills, says community health supervisor Pam Kellogg-Marmsoler.

“We’re hearing these things, the loss of a loved one or an absentee parent, more and more,” she says.

The counties have each decided it’s time the manufacturers and distributors of opioids are called out for their hand in a public health crisis that shows no signs of abating.

The St. Louis County commissioners this week voted to allow St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin to initiate a lawsuit against the yet-to-be-named companies.

The Mower County Board of Commissioners did the same Tuesday night. Its 4-to-0 vote (with one commissioner absent) directed Mower County Attorney Kristen Nelsen “to go forward with litigation to pursue” the firms that are behind “the opioid crisis that we are in right now.”

The Minneosta litigation follows the lead of about 60 other counties across the country which have already brought lawsuits accusing pharmaceutical companies and distributors of being complicit to an epidemic, and turning a blind eye to the mounting suffering.

In Minnesota, opioid overdoses are up 430 percent since 2000. That pace of growth is more than double the national average.

The stats in St. Louis County are more scarring. Between 2011 and 2016, heroin, opioids and other prescribed pain med combined to claim 167 lives. In 2015, the county reported the highest per capita rate of heroin and opioid overdose deaths in the state, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Mower County officials have yet to say the amount of money they will be seeking. St. Louis County’s Rubin did state that any settlement should be enough so the locale gets the “additional resources to combat” the scourge.

Fred Hempel, a chemical dependency counselor with 14 years experience, applauds the counties' measures. He’s of the belief the companies share at least some blame.

“To what extent they’re responsible, I don’t know. I do know opioids are overprescribed,” says Hempel. “It’s been made too easy to access them. The companies have made sure there’s no lack of product.”

Hempel understands the desperation brought on by the epidemic. Local governments are overwhelmed and feel powerless to change things.

“They’re doing the best they can with what they got,” he says. “We all are.”

He sees it in struggling clients, who unknowingly began a descent with 30 pills for back pain. Two months later, they can’t function without them, and have built up a tolerance that requires more pills, with more potency.

"[Counties] want to feel like they’re doing something," Hempel says. "Is it going to be effective? Probably not. It’s going to cost people a lot of money. I do know that. But other than that, I probably don’t see it accomplishing much.”


On Friday, the Minneapolis City Council authorized City Attorney Susan Segal to move forward with its own lawsuit against opioid makers and distributors.

“The misrepresentations, deceptive and dangerous marketing practices, oversupply and failure to comply with federal reporting requirements of opioid manufacturers and distributors," said Segal in a release, "are among the leading causes of our current spiral of opioid-related addiction, overdoses, and deaths."

According to Fire Chief John Fruetel, the fire department has been called out 363 times since May 2016 for opioid overdose emergencies.   
“In the past 18 months," said Frutel via the city's statement, "we’ve seen a large increase in demand for service in response to the opioid epidemic.”