MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The opioid epidemic plaguing the country is hitting Tennessee especially hard.
More than 1,500 Tennesseans died from drug overdoses last year – a 12 percent spike from 2015.
Shelby County Commissioners voted Wednesday to ratify Chairwoman Heidi Shafer’s move to bring a lawsuit against several pharmaceutical companies, rather than wait for the Mayor’s office and county attorney to do so.
The lawsuit, which was filed last week on behalf of the commission, hopes to recover some of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the county fighting the opioid epidemic.
Commissioner Shafer tells WREG she was sick of waiting for Mayor Mark Luttrell to take action while drug overdose deaths continue to rise.
“I know that the way that you get people to start policing themselves is to threaten to hit them in the pocketbook,” she said. “We already have laws that are being flouted and violated by this network of industries that is acting de facto like a drug cartel… We want research to go on, we want development. But we’re not going to let people prey on our folks.”
Citizens passionately spoke out about the issue at Wednesday’s meeting.
“There isn’t any more time to waste, any more time to drag your feet,” one woman told the Commission. “Something has got to be done because people are dying right now, and new addicts are being made right now while a pharmaceutical rep is in a doctor’s office wining and dining them.”
During a news conference last week, Commissioner Terry Roland said the Commission will give the county a head start when it comes to getting back dollars already spent.
“If we wait on the attorney general of Tennessee to file suit, then the state will determine how much we get,” he said. “If we sue in state court we have a seat at the table, a better chance to recoup the resources we have lost.”
Those resources will reportedly go into the millions for law enforcement and health care.
“This is not a white thing or a black think,” Roland said. “It’s not a democrat or republican thing. This is a human cost that we’re paying in Shelby County.”
But the filing of the lawsuit quickly created tension among Shelby County government.
“I think it was ill-advised on her part,” Mayor Mark Luttrell told reporters Tuesday, when he announced he was suing Shafer over the contract. “I think it was unilateral without the consent of the County Commission and it has complicated county government’s initiatives to move forward.”
Luttrell said his office was already working on how to move forward in fighting the opioid crisis.
“It is messy. It angers me. It frustrates me,” he said. “It diverts me from the process of trying to solve this problem and have to fiddle around with a lawsuit,.”
Mayor Luttrell’s lawsuit went before a judge Tuesday afternoon and was re-set for next Tuesday. The judge told all the parties to find a fix to the problem.
The commission’s contract will now go to Mayor Luttrell, who can sign it, take no action and let it stand or veto it.
If he vetoes it, the commission can override the veto with eight votes.
Commissioner Roland tells WREG the County Commission will also take a vote of no confidence in the county attorney Monday.
He argues she has failed to advise them, and has instead been working with the mayor.