Indian Tribes Take Opioid Companies to Court
By Jennifer Brooks
Indian tribes in Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas are suing opioid manufacturers and distributors over the epidemic of addiction and overdoses that racks their reservations.
Three North and South Dakota tribes filed suit in federal court Monday against two dozen companies. Minnesota's Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe filed a similar suit in December, the same month the St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin filed suit against the industries they accuse of minimizing nationwide abuse of prescription narcotics.
"The opioid epidemic has hit Indian Country particularly hard," said Tim Purdon, former U.S. attorney for North Dakota, one of the attorneys who filed suit this week on behalf of the Rosebud Sioux, Flandreau Santee Sioux, and Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribes.
The newly filed lawsuits seek compensation for the added costs the tribes are shouldering for everything from law enforcement to health care to child protective services in response to the health crisis.
"Our tribal communities have endured many challenges and adversities in our history and found a way to survive," Leech Lake Tribal Chairman Faron Jackson Sr. said in a statement last month. "The crisis caused by the proliferation of opiates throughout our communities is the newest threat to our way of life.
"We hope this lawsuit will help to bring further attention to this major issue and ultimately make sure the major opioid manufacturers, who have put their corporate profit margins over the lives of our people, are held accountable for their actions."
Almost 200 communities across the country have filed suit against the companies they say oversold and underegulated opioids, spawning a public health crisis that has taken thousands of lives and ruined countless more. In Minnesota, where opioid overdose deaths have increased by 430 percent since 2000, county attorneys filed suit against the pharmaceutical industry in November.
But the industry says it is being scapegoated. "We don't make medicines, market medicines, prescribe medicines, or dispense them to consumers," John Parker, senior vice president of the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, said in a statement. The national trade association represents the companies that arrange the storage, transport and delivery of opioid painkillers and other medicines.
"Given our role, the idea that distributors are solely responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and how it is regulated."
But, he added: "We are ready to have a serious conversation about solving a complex problem and are eager to work with political leaders and all stakeholders in finding forward-looking solutions."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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