A rural hospital board in southern Georgia is challenging a 2022 state law that prohibits local officials from suing opioid manufacturers and distributors.
The Wayne County Hospital Board filed its federal lawsuit in spring 2019, seeking damages for the strain on Wayne Memorial Hospital in Jesup, located about 40 miles northwest of Brunswick.
In Wayne County, which is home to about 31,000 people, the opioid-related overdose rate was 23 per 100,000, which was higher than the state average of 16.8 in 2021, according to the latest annual report from the state’s Department of Health. There was also an above-average number of emergency room visits for opioid overdoses this year.
But the state had filed its own lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors a few months before the Wayne County Hospitals Department filed a lawsuit, suing the drug companies in court while also participating in multi-state settlement negotiations that eventually resulted in a $26 billion -Deal led.
The 2022 law barring local governments from filing their own lawsuits was passed as part of those negotiations to settle lawsuits filed by thousands of government plaintiffs nationally. In Georgia, all but two litigating government agencies — the Wayne County Hospital Authority and the Bibb County School District — opted to participate.
The drug companies are now seeking to have the Georgia Rural Hospital Board’s lawsuit dismissed under Georgia state law. And the question of where the local authority goes ended up in the Georgia Supreme Court, which heard the case Tuesday. A judgment will come later.
Robert Smith, an attorney for the hospital board, argued the law was unconstitutional because the local board was essentially a private company.
“They had pre-existing rights — constitutional rights — that cannot be taken away,” Smith told judges Tuesday.
Some of the judges questioned the logic of the argument.
“Are you arguing that because the General Assembly has granted private rights in certain circumstances, the hospital authorities are human beings, and because the Constitution speaks of human beings, they now have constitutional rights, even though they have been given powers by law? ?” Judge Sarah Hawkins asked Warren.
“Right, they have the same rights as a private company,” Smith replied.
Former Chief Justice Harold Melton, who resigned in 2021, represented the drug companies before his former peers. The state attorney general’s office, which negotiated the settlement agreement, is also asking the court to end the local hospital board’s unilateral effort.
Attorney General Chris Carr announced last January that the state of Georgia had joined the $26 billion settlement agreement with Cardinal, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen — the country’s three largest pharmaceutical distributors — and opioid maker and marketer Johnson & Johnson.
The deal is expected to pay the state $636 million.
Carr has argued that the federal approach would allow Georgia to maximize the amount of relief it gets from opioid manufacturers and marketers who are accused of downplaying the drugs’ addictiveness and ignoring suspicious levels of use of their products.
“Not only is at stake the status of the state’s multi-million dollar funding, but also the state’s ability to meaningfully settle,” the state wrote in its brief to the state Supreme Court, which as ” Friend” was filed by the court.
“If the state cannot speak with one voice, no private party can trust the state’s word, even if it is enshrined in law. Sign an agreement with the state today and let a rogue community sue you tomorrow.”
Opioid overdoses remain high nationwide. According to DPH, there were 2,390 drug overdose deaths in Georgia in 2021, and 71% were attributed to opioids and 57% to fentanyl.