Calarco's Corner

Confronting the opioid epidemic head-on

Presiding Officer Rob Calarco
Posted 7/22/21

Our county and our country have been dealing with a pandemic and an epidemic simultaneously. As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, the opioid epidemic, which is now more than a decade old, …

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Calarco's Corner

Confronting the opioid epidemic head-on


Our county and our country have been dealing with a pandemic and an epidemic simultaneously. As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, the opioid epidemic, which is now more than a decade old, continued to ravage our communities. Last year alone, over 93,000 people in our nation died as a result of an overdose. The isolation caused by shutdowns has undoubtedly made it harder for those struggling with addiction to get treatment or participate in support groups, furthering the impact of this crisis. This is a tragic one-two hit to public health that did not have to occur.

The dangers of opiates were well known and observed during the opium craze of the late 19th century.  But that perspective changed in the late 1990s when pharmaceutical companies sought to expand a market previously confined to palliative care. Pain became a vital life sign and they seized upon this as an opportunity to encourage our nation's doctors and health care providers to treat the pain with their new “safe” opioid medications.  With no actual data or studies, they convinced the medical community that patients would not become addicted to opioid pain relievers, leading to the emergence of opioids to treat pain ranging from legitimate palliative care to 30-day prescriptions for a pulled tooth.

The inevitable occurred: the misuse of prescription medication, addiction, and eventually, as these drugs became harder to obtain, the widespread use of illicit drugs like heroin.  By 2016, opioid overdoses accounted for more than 42,000 deaths and an estimated 40 percent of opioid overdose deaths involved a prescription opioid. The number of people dying of an accidental overdose of opioids exceeded every other drug combined.

In Suffolk County, we have taken many steps to address and end this epidemic and had continued to make progress until COVID struck. In 2014, I directed our law department to explore the feasibility of suing the manufacturers of opioids. Following this action, we established a six-member committee that worked to determine the impact of opioids on Suffolk County which led to the decision to bring a suit forward.

Suffolk County was just the third municipality in the nation to bring forth a suit, with the guidance of our outside law firm of Simmons Hanly Conroy, LLC. The statewide jury trial that is taking place in Suffolk County is a direct result of our efforts. While several manufacturers are fighting us, we have already had real success in holding those responsible accountable.

On June 30, 2021, New York attorney general Letitia James announced an agreement with Johnson & Johnson (J&J) that will grant New York State up to $230 million, of which Suffolk will receive roughly 8 percent. 

Purdue Pharma, the largest of all the manufacturers, declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and their case was taken into bankruptcy court.  The bankruptcy plan will result in Purdue and the Sackler family, the principal owners of the company, paying between $4 and $6.75 billion. Suffolk County may receive nearly $20 million for this action.  Most importantly, both J&J and Purdue will cease the production of opioid medications.

While the manufacturers may bear the most significant responsibility, others were also happy to reap the profits when they could. This includes pharmacies and distributors who should have recognized the disproportionate amounts of opioids flowing through their hands and into communities.  Their failure to raise the alarm exacerbated the impact of this crisis by allowing individuals to pharmacy shop and obtain more of these powerful drugs. We recently settled with CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens, and Walmart for a total of nearly $14 million.

While these settlements cannot repair the damage done or bring back those who we lost to the grips of this epidemic, it has already made a substantial impact. Doctors are now prescribing medication differently, and two of the major manufacturers will cease production.  The settlement dollars that the county receives will be put toward expanding treatment and prevention programs to support those suffering from opioid dependency. This is a significant step forward, and I am proud to have put my full support behind this effort from the beginning.

If you or someone you know struggles with drug dependency, you can call Suffolk County's Substance Abuse Hotline at 631-979-1700. It is possible to break free from the grips of substance abuse disorder; your life and the lives of your loved ones are worth it.


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