Another Kentucky overdose — on politics this time

Published 11:08 am Tuesday, January 23, 2018

In a better world, ethical business practices would have averted the flood of prescription painkillers that triggered mass addiction.

In this world, choices made in company headquarters fueled the opioid crisis that is straining thousands of Kentuckians, their families and governments. Employers say it’s hard to find workers who screen free of drugs. Kentucky has the nation’s fifth-highest rate of fatal overdoses.

Despite all that, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and Republican lawmakers are blocking efforts to make the corporate perpetrators pay something (they could never fully atone) for the harms they have caused.

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Republicans are trying to tie the hands of Attorney General Andy Beshear who, whether they like the Democrat or not, is the state’s chief legal officer and responsible for protecting consumers from deceptive marketing.

The sniping peaked Jan. 9 when a legislative committee voted on party lines to reject a competitively bid contract between the AG’s office and a team of outside lawyers to pursue litigation against prescription opioid manufacturers, distributors and retailers who profited by turning a blind eye to the crisis they were fueling.

States, counties and cities in Kentucky and nationwide, who could never afford to take on deep-pocketed pharmaceutical companies, are employing outside counsel to comb through millions of documents, depose witnesses and build cases. The lawyers are paid a percentage of any award or settlement. Taxpayers are at no risk because if nothing is recovered the lawyers don’t get paid.

In a better world, there would be surer paths to accountability. In this world, government and class-action lawsuits in civil courts serve as recourse and deterrent.

Beshear bent over backward to honor Republican concerns about such contracts and lawsuits. His office complied with limits proposed by a pair of Republican lawmakers last year even though the limits never became law, including a sliding contingency fee of 5 to 20 percent depending on the amount recovered.

The Finance and Administration Cabinet made noises about vetoing the contract but finally gave its approval, only to have the Government Contract Review Committee object. Finance Secretary William H. Landrum III can approve the contract over the legislative committee’s protest. And he should.

Rejecting it would be picking a court fight with Beshear, who would cite statute and constitution to argue that the AG has independent contracting authority. In such a battle, the Bevin administration would be siding with pill-mill profiteers who misled about the addictive properties of their drugs.

Beshear is seen as a potential Bevin challenger in 2019, so the partisan urge to deny him any time in the spotlight is strong.

The opioid plague, however, is bipartisan and does not discriminate by wealth, class or geography. Health officials recently identified a cluster of HIV cases in Campbell and Kenton counties among people who inject opioids. Perry and Leslie counties have the nation’s highest rates of opioid abuse hospitalizations followed by Knott and Breathitt in fifth and ninth.

In a better world, all the resources of the private and public sectors would be deployed in response to this public health disaster. In this world, communities are desperate for help. Settlements of lawsuits against opioid manufacturers already are helping fund treatment for moms and newborns and supporting rehab centers in Lexington, Corbin and Hazard.

In this world, it’s a good time to put pragmatism above politics.

Lexington Herald-Leader