Bradford County Commissioners (above, from left) Doug McLinko, Daryl Miller, and Ed Bustin spoke at length on Thursday about the growing opioid crisis and the additional steps the county is taking to curb the epidemic.
Photos and Story by Rick Hiduk
The Bradford County Commissioners approved a motion at the March 8 meeting that puts them in lock step with counties across the state and nation who have joined a number a lawsuits against the manufacturers of prescription opioids. The primary claim is that “Major Pharm,” as the companies have become collectively known, falsely promoted an entire class of pain medication as non-addictive, even though their experts knew otherwise. The result, say lawmakers, is a nation addicted to opioids and an overdose crisis that continues to grow.
If successful, Bradford County might realize a share of the settlement, but the process will be arduous and the returns likely minimal.
“It’s not about the money,” said Commissioner Ed Bustin (below), considered the board’s expert on the addiction epidemic. “It’s about changing corporate behaviors.”
The opioid crisis was exacerbated, the commissioners agree, by lax prescription guidelines and a misdirected wont by hospital administrators to achieve higher rankings from patients completing exit surveys. Home-bound patients are routinely asked if they are still in pain. The higher the reported level of pain on the surveys, the lower the ranking for the medical institution. This, in turn, motivated physicians to prescribe more pain medication.
If taken as often as prescribed, drugs like hydrocodone and oxycodone can easily become addictive. In the past, it was not uncommon for a patient to be permitted to have the prescription refilled several times. When the prescription is finally cut off, the patient can already have a substance use disorder which, if not immediately addressed, begins the downward spiral to addiction.
Commissioner Doug McLinko has fielded numerous complaints from constituents who see substance abuse as a matter of personal choice and who would prefer not to see the county channeling resources nor constantly bringing attention to the matter.
“Whether it’s an issue of personal choice or personal responsibility, behind each death is a destroyed family,” McLinko stated. “The coroner’s job is not a part time job anymore, and that’s a terrible thing to say.”
Equally alarming to him are the growing number of children now under the care of the grandparents because their parents have been removed from their lives by drugs, incarceration, or death.
“The trauma that youth are exposed to today impacts what happens to them as they move through their lives,” Commissioner Daryl Miller concurred.
The cost to the county has been astronomical, the commissioners maintain, and the class action lawsuit is only a small part of the multifaceted approach the commissioners have helped to support to address the situation.
“It’s not just an opioid crisis. It’s an addiction crisis,” Miller remarked. “We’ve gone through a variety of substances over the years, and Meth is rearing its ugly head again.”
“We need to concentrate on prevention at the earliest stages,” Bustin asserted. “It’s a matter of getting ahead of what’s coming down the pike.”
“We’ve got to get a handle on the people who are affected,” McLinko added, “and we need to stop the drugs from coming into our county.”
The county has aligned itself with the efforts of Mark J Bern and Partners LLC in litigation against the opioid manufacturers.
“This is going to be a long-term process,” said Bustin, noting that the legal team will work with various county entities to assess the damages and try to put a dollar amount to it. “It will be complex. We don’t expect any answers soon.”
In the meantime, he noted, people are succumbing to addiction-related overdoses in record numbers. Pennsylvania is among the top four states in the nation when it comes to addiction-related deaths, and Bradford County has moved into the top four in the Commonwealth.