by Ron Gregory
WILLIAMSON — The Mingo County Commission will apparently join a growing number of West Virginia counties in attempting to take on the opiod drug addiction problem by suing the pill manufacturers. Their actions, which were joined by nearby Boone as well, come at a time when controlled drug experts say the dispensing of illegal narcotics is significantly down in West Virginia.
Two competing legal firms appeared before the Mingo Commission meeting in regular session Tuesday, January 17, to present proposals to sue manufacturers on behalf of the county.
Members of the Commission — President Diann Hannah and Commissioners Greg “Hootie” Smith and Thomas Taylor — listened to presentations from the two Tuesday evening. The meeting began at 4:35 p.m. Williamson attorneys H. Truman Chafin and Tish Chafin offered a potential contract for their services in suing the companies. Williamson lawyer Justin Marcum represented Paul Farrell of the Green, Ketchum law firm which had made an earlier, more complete presentation. Marcum said Farrell had offered a proposed contract as well, with the firm charging a 30 percent contingency fee. He said he would serve as local counsel for Farrell.
Both firms offered a number of other counties in the state where they either have secured contracts for these services of are in the process of doing so. Both claimed they would eventually be representing more counties than the others. Marcum later said that fees, such as investigation charges, etc. would be pro-rated among the counties his firm represents. “That will bring more money back to the taxpayer, too,” he explained
Several times during both presentations, it was mentioned that the state Attorney General’s Office had already filed suit and settled one such case for multiple millions of dollars.
Some local pharmacists and physicians have expressed concerns about the suits, saying they will prevent doctors from prescribing opiods for chronic pain cases. “They have worked so hard to give a bad name to these medicines that doctors are afraid to prescribe them, even for patients who have cancer or some other illness and desperately need them. Nobody wants a reputation for running a ‘pill mill,'” said one local doctor who asked to remain anonymous.
Several West Virginia doctors and pharmacists say laws enacted within the past few years are already acting to slow opioid addiction. Michael Goff, an administrator of the Controlled Substance Monitoring Program of the state Board of Pharmacy, said prescriptions being filled for such drugs by West Virginia drug stores are down dramatically.
“In the period from 2011 to 2016,” Goff said Wednesday, West Virginia pharmacies are now filling 40,000,000 less hydrocodone prescriptions. Oxycontin is down by eight million. That’s 48 million, with an “m” less prescriptions being filled for these drugs. That shows the programs and laws put into place in the last few years are effective and working.”
Boone County’s Commission voted to hire Farrell yesterday, according to Commissioner Mickey Brown. “We’re like the other counties,” he said. “Our people have suffered irreparable harm because of these drug companies. We have a right, under the state constitution, to try to seek restitution. We have no intention of harming or hurting the doctors or pharmacists. That’s not who we’re going after — we’re targeting the people who make and sell the drugs.”
Still some worry that counties will not be able to limit their targets. Former Williamson Mayor Sam Kapourales, in the stands for the Mingo meeting, spoke briefly. “Companies like Cardinal (a wholesale drug distributor) are going to be defendants in these cases. They can turn around and bring in anybody they want, like the pharmacies.” Kapourales is a former drug store owner.
After hearing from the Chafins and Marcum, President Hannah suggested a decision on the matter be postponed since she said other firms have expressed an interest in representing the county.
Commissioners then announced they will continue to accept proposals through the second meeting in February. They will either employ someone or agree not to hire anyone at their March 1 meeting. Smith noted that he would abstain from voting to accept the Chafin proposal due to the fact that the law firm “has suits against me, as a commissioner and personally.” Later, in answer to a question from the audience, Smith said he felt the suits by the Chafin firm presented a “27-year conflict of interest” in representing him as a Commissioner.
In a sharp exchange, Taylor told Marcum during his presentation that Marcum had not represented himself to be Farrell’s “local counsel” when Farrell appeared before the Commission. Marcum responded that no effort was made to hide the fact. “I was here,” he said. “We all walked into the back room there and talked about it.”
That caused a caustic retort from Taylor, who immediately seized upon Marcum’s terminology to declare, “the days of the back room deals are over.” Marcum repeatedly tried to interject that no “backroom deal” was attempted but Taylor used the same line several times before saying “everything we do happens out here, on the bench.”
In routine business, the Mingo Commission heard from Winfred Farley, who would like to place vending machines in the two courthouse buildings. Although nobody seemed certain who stocks the machines now, Smith said he “had heard” that some of the proceeds go to the Tug Valley Recovery Shelter. When asked if he provided a portion of his proceeds to the shelter, Farley said he did not.
After brief discussion, the Commission agreed to research whether there are any outstanding contracts for vendor services and whether a part of the proceeds go to the shelter. Otherwise, Taylor and Smith said they would have no problem approving Farley’s request at a later date.
Hannah’s resignation from the Mingo Logan Mental Health Board was accepted. It appeared Taylor will likely now represent the commission on that body. Considerable discussion followed concerning the Airport Authority. Hannah pointed out that former Commissioner John Mark Hubbard had served on that board. There appeared some reluctance to name anyone to take his place but finally Hannah agreed she would “if they want me. I never go anywhere I’m not wanted.”
Hannah announced the receipt of a grant to complete the Beech Creek Water project. Once that project is done, more than 90 percent of Mingo County will have potable water, she said.
It was agreed that 911 and Emergency Services Director position will be advertised for 30 days through Job Service. As with the hiring of an attorney in the oxycontin matter, Commissioner hope to hire a new director by March 1.
There being no further business, the meeting was adjourned at 5:34 p.m.