A Native American tribe in Wisconsin is suing opioid manufacturers in federal court in what might be the first such lawsuit in the country.
The St. Croix Chippewa Indians are hoping for damages from manufacturers and distributors of prescription drugs like percocet and oxycotin. They say the cost of treating addiction has burdened their community.
Well over half of Wisconsin counties have already sued pharmaceutical companies. They say those companies have engaged in fraudulent marketing of opioid painkillers and that that’s at the root of the opioid epidemic.
Like counties, tribes have had to pour resources into treating opioid addiction. Jeff Cormell is a lawyer for the St Croix Chippewa Indians, who are located in northwestern Wisconsin.
He says the strain on tribes has been even greater because the tribe pays for all its own services including a clinic, addiction facilities, a child welfare system and health providers. They’ll even help fund members who use addiction services outside the tribal system.
In addition, the St. Croix tribe uses a self funded insurance program. Cormell says that means the tribe covers a person struggling for drug addiction every step of the way.
Cormell says there were six opioid-related deaths in the community of around 1,100 last year. That doesn’t include the many more overdoses that didn’t result in death last year, Cormell says. He says the clinic responds opioid overdoses weekly.
Cormell describes the damages as they play out now as only the tip of the iceberg. One of the tribes largest expenses is their child wellfare system. He says all the cases currently in family court stem from opioid and heroin addiction.
The St. Croix suit isn’t part of the dozens of Wisconsin counties which are suing in the Eastern district of the federal court with nearly identical lawsuits. Their suit is separate, which Cormell says is thanks to the expansiveness of the effect on their insular, tribal system.
Cormell says he expects this suit to be the first of many.
Also differing from the county suits, the tribe is suing pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens, which Cormell says were complicit in over prescribing opioid painkillers. He says they’re looking to target the entire supply chain.
Producer Nina Kravinsky reports on the story.