Franklin County not joining opiate lawsuit

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FARMINGTON — Two of Franklin County’s three commissioners said Tuesday they remained opposed to a nationwide effort to sue pharmaceutical companies that make and distribute opiates, despite decisions by several town, city and county governments in Maine to join the effort.

“Where is this going to end?” Commissioner Terry Brann said. “Are we going to sue auto manufacturers because of accidents? Are we going to sue the alcohol industry because of accidents that occur? I don’t see a difference.” 

Commissioner Clyde Barker said he agreed with Brann that the lawsuit is unnecessary. Commissioner Charlie Webster was absent from Tuesday’s meeting. 

The lawsuit, filed in state court by Napoli Shkolnik of New York City and Trafton, Matzen, Belleau & Frenette of Auburn on behalf of several Maine municipalities and county governments, accuses manufacturers and distributors of opioids of fraudulent and negligent marketing and distribution of the drugs. 

So far, 11 of Maine’s 16 counties have joined the lawsuit, as well as 10 municipalities, including Auburn, Bangor, Lewiston, Waterville and Portland, according to Napoli Shkolnik. 

The number of overdose deaths in Maine has risen sharply the past few years, with the Maine attorney general’s office reporting a record 418 drug overdose deaths in 2017, a majority of them from opioids. However, most of the deaths reported were in counties that are home to Maine’s largest cities. 

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Fewer than 10 overdose deaths were reported in Franklin County in 2017, according to the attorney general’s office.

Webster, when reached by phone Tuesday, said he didn’t have an opinion on the lawsuit, but the county had been advised by its attorney not to support it. 

Warren Shay, the attorney handling the lawsuit for Franklin County, said he could not give further detail on what concerns there are for Franklin County, but County Clerk Julie Magoon said there have been two major issues.

One is that it left open the amount the county could be charged for research fees. In addition, she said, the suit originally did not name all defendants it sought to prosecute, and there was concern it could jeopardize the county’s relationship with Franklin Memorial Hospital or other entities. 

Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, which runs hospitals in Bangor and Portland, already has withdrawn from community partnerships in those cities, citing concern over the naming of individual physicians affiliated with their practices. 

Magoon said the issue has been resolved in Franklin County by adding the stipulation that the county could pick and choose whom it wants to prosecute.  

Still, the county to date hasn’t taken any action on the suit. Brann and Barker agreed Tuesday to postpone further discussion until the next meeting. 

In other news Tuesday, the county approved a $1 per hour raise for Finance Manager Vickie Braley and a change in her job description to accommodate a change in how tax-increment financing payments are made. 

Rather than make payments for approved projects in lump sums, the county is moving to a process that will generate reimbursements throughout the development of a project. 

The change does not have to do with any specific problem that has arisen, but will be a more proactive way of ensuring expenses meet the criteria of the TIF fund, Magoon said. At the same time, she said, it will generate excess work for the finance manager. 

Braley’s rate of pay will increase to $24.12 an hour. The increase will come out of the TIF fund and not from taxpayer dollars.

Commissioners also voted to accept a bid from Quirk Auto Group for the purchase of two new police cruisers and a pickup truck for the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office. Quirk was the low bidder at $78,944, including a discount for trade-ins, while Farmington Ford came in at $104,811. 

Franklin County Courthouse in Farmington. (Sun Journal file photo)

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