Overland Park looks into suing drug companies to recover costs of responding to opioid-related emergencies

Cities across the country are considering mounting law suits against drug companies to help recoup the cost of responding to opioid-related emergency calls.

Overland Park has become the first among Johnson County’s largest cities to take steps toward recovering costs associated with the overuse of opioid painkillers.

The city council recently gave the go-ahead to find a lawyer to investigate suing opioid manufacturers. The suit would seek to recoup money the city spends on, for example, police and paramedic calls to handle drug overdoses.

Photo credit Frankie Leon.

The idea is an emerging trend among local and state governments as the abuse of the pain killers increases. Opioid overdoses killed 42,000 nationwide in 2016, with 40 percent of that involving a prescription opioid, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

Attorneys general in 41 states, including Kansas, are investigating marketing practices of pharmaceuticals, and Missouri has filed a lawsuit against three makers of the drugs. But until this month, none of the larger cities in the county had made any moves to pursue the issue on a legal front. The county has been considering action for about a year, but is still evaluating the best course, said Don Jarrett, the county’s legal counsel.

Johnson County has not seen as much of a problem with opioid abuse as have some other rural counties, but officials were concerned enough that they held a community discussion about a year ago to identify red flags and plan some strategies.

Overland Park’s first step toward a lawsuit was to send out a call for law firms that would investigate what types of losses the city may have. The firm would operate on a contingency basis, meaning it would not get compensated unless the city recovered damages.

The city doesn’t have a separate record of drug arrests or police service calls involving opioids, said John Lacy, the police department’s spokesperson. Drug arrests overall have gone up slightly, with 172 arrests in 2016 and 175 in 2017.

Lacy said the trend in opioid-related calls this past year seems to be going downward.

“What we’ve seen so far is we do get them but not as frequently compared to other cities,” he said.

That may be because people are more aware of the problem now, he said. The topic is incorporated into the anti-drug messages to schools, and media coverage has made people more hesitant to try opioids, he said.

So far the city does not have figures on the cost of staff time spent on opioid-related problems. That would be part of the fact-finding to be conducted by the law firm, once it is hired.