Ector County will be joining a long list of Texas counties bringing forth lawsuits against various pharmaceutical companies manufacturing or supplying opioid drugs.

Opioids, which are classified as painkillers, including prescription drugs such as morphine and hydrocodone, and illegal drugs such as heroin, have recently been considered a health crisis nationwide. President Donald Trump even declared the opioid crisis a national public health emergency last October.

Opioid abuse hits closer to home than some may think. A study from Castlight Health ranks Odessa as having the 15th highest opioid abuse rate in the United States at 8 percent. At an estimated population of 117,871, that means more than 9,400 Odessans are abusing opioid drugs.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Greg Simmons clarified that this isn’t really Ector County pushing for a lawsuit, but that there are a number of lawsuits against the opioid companies forming among several counties in Texas, and Ector County is joining the push to ensure they receive part of the settlement, should there be one.

“We do have a lot of cases in the Permian Basin,” Simmons said, referring to opioid abuse. “We felt like we needed to be represented in the lawsuit.”

Simmons also acknowledged that opioid abuse is a problem in the county, one that is a financial burden on the county due to the cost of prosecuting and housing opioid abusers.

Upshur County was the first Texas county to bring forth a lawsuit last October, and a number of counties across Texas, including Dallas County and Harris County, have joined since then.

The law firm who filed that first suit, Simon Greenstone Panatier Bartlett, PC, will also be representing Ector County in their case, with attorney Robert White acting as local counsel.

Commissioners passed the decision Monday to bring forth the lawsuit and hire the firm with two votes of 4-0. Eckert abstained from both votes due to having attended law school with Jeffrey Simon, one of the lawyers hired. Simon first pled his case for a lawsuit to county commissioners last November.

“Unfortunately, Ector County is in the midst of an opioid overuse epidemic, and that epidemic has cost the county an enormous amount of money to try to deal with all of the economic fallout created by the human misery which was created by opioids,” Simon said.

Simon said the epidemic was started by certain members of the pharmaceutical industry who promoted opioid drugs as being less addictive than they really are, while over-promoting their use for treating chronic pain.

The problem with opioids, Simon said, is that a tolerance to the drugs develops very quickly in people, requiring them to take larger amounts as time goes on in order to receive the pain-numbing effect, which increases the risk of addiction and accidental overdose.

“The risk of people taking larger than helpful doses of prescription opioids is very high,” Simon said. “But that is an inherent feature of the drug.”

The specific targets in the lawsuit would be a number of manufacturers, such as Purdue Pharma, Endo Pharmaceuticals, and Johnson & Johnson, as well as several distributing companies.

Simon said there is no exact date yet as to when the county’s claim will be filed against the pharmaceutical companies. The rest of their claims are also still in their introductory phases.

Kayla Fishbeck, Regional Evaluator at the Permian Basin Regional Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, said opioids are a huge problem throughout this region. She said the council has begun trying to educate the community more on the dangers of opioids in their presentations on substance abuse.

“We’re trying to include opioids in that. Because people don’t see it as necessarily such a problem,” Fishbeck said. “Opioids are different from other drugs in terms of how addictive they are. It affects everyone. It’s not targeted to a certain population or a certain demographic. Everyone is prescribed drugs at some point in their life.”