Vote on opioid litigation postponed

City leaders Monday postponed joining a cross-jurisdictional lawsuit against some nationwide drug distributors to learn more about the litigation and its possible effects.

The lawsuit, if successful, would help Jacksonville and other participating cities recoup money spent dealing with the repercussions of opioid abuse. Prescription opioid abuse has risen sharply nationally over the last decade, becoming a significant concern among health experts and the government and medical officials dealing with the crisis.

The Jacksonville City Council decided during its regular Monday meeting to remove the vote on the litigation from its agenda. Doing so gives the council the option to vote on the topic at a later meeting.

During the work session prior to the meeting, some council members voiced questions they had about the litigation and the contract with the law firm that would handle the case. Birmingham attorney Annesley DeGaris proposed the city enter the litigation during a previous council meeting.

Some of the council members wanted clarification on what expenses the attorney and his firm would charge the city. DeGaris had said the city would only be charged if the lawsuit was successful.

Councilman Jimmy Harrell said he was also concerned about pharmacies located in the city.

“I’d like to know what impact this might have on local businesses,” Harrell said of the lawsuit.

Abuse of opioids, a group of painkillers that includes heroin and substances available by prescription, has jumped in the last two decades.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of opioid overdose deaths has increased 200 percent. In 2014, 47,055 drug overdose deaths occurred in the U.S., a 6.5 percent increase over the previous year, the CDC states.

DeGaris has said that the national rise in opioid abuse could have been prevented. He alleges that over the years, drug distributors and manufacturers used faulty data and encouraged physicians to prescribe powerful opioids more often than they should have, as way to increase revenue.

Mayor Johnny Smith said after the meeting he wanted the city to pursue the litigation.

“I think the use of opioids is kind of out of control in this country … it costs our citizens in extra policemen, extra jail space and with EMS calls,” Smith said. “It seems unfair that our citizens have to pay for that through taxes.”

Jacksonville police Chief Tommy Thompson said before the meeting that his department didn’t keep statistics on opioid-related crimes, but that they keep his officers busy.

“About 80 to 90 percent of the calls we get are related to drug or alcohol use,” Thompson said.

In a Monday phone interview, DeGaris said he currently represents eight Alabama cities in the opioid litigation and is working on representing cities in Texas and other states. DeGaris he expected to file the actual lawsuit by the end of the year.

“After that, it’ll be at least about two years before the case is finished,” he said.

Also during the meeting, the council approved a one-time cost of living adjustment for city employees, costing a total of $52,000. Employees will get extra money based off their years of work, just like last year, Smith said.

Council members agreed that next year they’d like to approve a more methodical, cost of living raise for employees instead of just passing a one-time bonus every December.

“I think I’d like to see something like a 3 or 5 percent increase every year … I think that would benefit employees more in the long run,” said Councilman Tony Taylor.

The council agreed to visit the issue in March before it starts work on its next fiscal year budget.