Teton County will not sue opioid manufacturers on its own.
On Tuesday Teton County commissioners unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding with the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office saying they would work with the state. That differs from counties that have chosen to litigate on their own, like Carbon County and others across the country.
“We really appreciate in the AG’s office the cooperative spirit of this agreement,” Chief Deputy John Knepper said. “I think it is an important step in terms of addressing our state’s global response to the opioid crisis in a way that is cooperative and is a united front in a state of our size in terms of population.”
The document’s purpose, from the perspective of the Attorney General’s Office, was to “advance the effective and efficient investigation of opioid manufacturers and distributors, and to avoid the unnecessary duplication of effort and waste of public resources” as both parties “seek to engage in effective coordination and harmonious cooperation to combat the opioid crisis.”
The Wyoming Attorney General’s Office is conducting an investigation and considering litigation against opiate drug manufacturers and distributors.
Specifically, the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Unit is working with a coalition of other attorneys general across the country to evaluate whether some manufacturers and distributors have engaged in unlawful practices in marketing, promoting, advertising, selling and distributing opioids. The attorney general’s office may file suit to restrain and enjoin unlawful trade practices and recover civil penalties. The details and timeframe of such litigation is unclear to the public.
By signing, Teton County agreed to assist the attorney general by seeking out and identifying documents, information and witnesses connected to Teton County that are relevant to a statewide investigation, as well as facilitating the attorney general’s access to such information. In return the attorney general will provide information and updates as legally allowed.
After signing, the county commissioners were able to learn more about what they could expect and how the litigation process works in an executive session.
The memorandum can be terminated by either party, without cause, on 15 days written notice.
“It is revocable by us, but also by you,” Knepper said. “If you decide at some point this partnership is not something that’s in the best interest of the people of Teton County, this is not designed to tie you in a way that prevents you from making that conscious decision moving forward.”
The memorandum closed the loop after the commissioners held a workshop on May 14 with Peter Michael, the Wyoming attorney general, and several of his deputies, regarding the opioid crisis.
Michael brought an entourage to Jackson to tell Teton County commissioners they’d be better off not filing their own suit against opioid manufacturers and that the state was better positioned to lead the charge. The attorney general’s urging came at a time when counties across the country are choosing to sue on their own as a way to hold opioid manufacturers accountable for deaths and other costs. More than 600 counties nationwide have filed complaints, something Knepper coaxed Teton County not to do.
According to the University of Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center, Teton County has an opioid prescribing rate, 735 per 1,000, that is higher than both the national average, 665 per 1,000 and the state of Wyoming average, 711 per 1,000 between 2014 and 2016. According to coroner Brent Blue, who was present for the workshop, Teton County has had five deaths related to opiates since Jan. 1, 2016, which equates to 6 percent of the total fatalities during that time.
Also attending the May workshop was private legal counsel Jason Ochs, who is representing other counties in the region. He’s disappointed with the memorandum and pointed to nearby states who are taking the kind of action he wishes his county would also join.
“As a resident of Wyoming, it continues to trouble me that our neighboring states of Montana, Nebraska, Kansas and others are fighting this battle via AG lawsuits and individual county lawsuits yet in Wyoming the AG insists on representing all interests, when in any official capacity he would need a conflict waiver from the county to do so,” Ochs said.
It’s likely a state lawsuit, he added, would not end with Teton County receiving the kind of compensation it deserves.
“At a time when more than 160 Americans are perishing every day from the false claims made by opiate manufactures, and with more than 700 counties across the country now asserting themselves into the opioid fight — including Carbon County — I was discouraged to see our local officials sign the AG’s MOU without insisting on certain fiscal guarantees for the men, women and children of Teton County,” Ochs said. “Private firms, whether it be mine or others, were well positioned to guarantee Teton County at least 75 percent of any recovery, while providing no risk to the county. The MOU now ties Teton County’s hands indefinitely, and that is not in the best interest of our community when even the AG acknowledges Teton County has a higher opiate prescribing rate than that nationally.”