In the tide of prescription pills flowing across the country in the opioid epidemic, Prior Lake is no island. Two of five City Council members said the issue has caused them personal hardship.
While one said the experience pushed him to want to join a national lawsuit against opioid makers, the other said doing so still wouldn’t be worthwhile for the city.
Opioid painkillers came into Councilman Kevin Burkart’s life in 2012. A serious snowmobile accident on the Gunflint Trail resulted in a spinal cord injury that paralyzed his left arm and left chronic pain behind. Doctors prescribed him a cocktail of painkillers, antidepressants and blood thinners that included now infamous drugs like Oxycontin, hydrocodone, and Vicodin.
Even with the medications, Burkart said, he was in constant pain on top of an inability to sleep, a narcotic haze and growing depression. The drugs didn’t create a high; instead he acutely felt their absence. He said he repeatedly asked his doctors to change his prescription and find a way to treat his pain without opioids.
“My friends and family knew I was suicidal,” Burkart said. “My brother had to come and get my guns out of the house because I kept having these visions of eating a shotgun. ... I didn’t see how I was going to get my life back.”
Then in 2015, Burkart put his foot down and told his doctors he was done with the pills. His doctors told him to work his way off slowly and recommended methadone, another opiate used for pain and addiction. But Burkart wouldn’t have it.
“They fought me on that,” he said. “I’d just walk out of there essentially swearing at them.”
After four painful withdrawals, the councilman said he hasn’t taken the opioids in four years. His experience also left him with a desire to fight back against the companies that produce the highly addictive medications.
In an interview, Burkart said he felt the City Council’s 15-minute discussion during its Aug. 5 meeting about potentially joining a national multi-district lawsuit against the companies didn’t cover the issue well. The council decided against joining.
To Burkart joining the lawsuit is about accountability, not the money.” He said at the work session that he recognizes the suit would likely end in settlements and bring little or no money to the city.
“If you don’t go after the tip of the sword, who are you going after?” Burkart said afterward.
Councilwoman Annette Thompson said she sees things differently. Thompson lost her nephew to an opioid overdose. His death came after five months of sobriety.
“The opioid crisis is very real and personal to me,” Thompson wrote in an email. “I am in favor of fighting this crisis in every way I possibly can. The opportunity that was presented to me at a recent workshop was not the right way.”
“Since the city has not had significant expenditures to claim I felt it would be deceitful to join the lawsuit,” Thompson wrote. “I don’t think this lawsuit is going to bring about public awareness or make any significant change.”
Thompson and other councilmembers said their decision not to support joining the lawsuit in the end wasn’t a judgment on whether the crisis has taken a toll on Prior Lake residents but instead was a calculation about what the lawsuit would achieve against the work staff would need to put in.
During the Aug. 5 meeting, City Attorney Sarah Schwarzhoff said city staff would need to tally the city’s opioid costs and submit a 10-page form that her office would use to file a claim against companies like Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson and Endo International for damages.
Staff would need to know things like how much the police department had spent on training, supply and use of naxolone — a drug used to treat opioid overdoses.
“If litigation solved the opioid crisis, I would support it,” Councilman Zach Braid wrote in an email. “Roughly 70% of the City of Prior Lake’s operating budget is staffing, so applying staff time to this litigation is a guaranteed expenditure with little to no hope of a return and will not produce a material change in the opioid crisis.”
Councilman Warren Erickson said he agreed with Burkart’s desire to send a message but couldn’t support having the city join the lawsuit with the staffing considerations and the impact it could have on the money other communities might get.
Among the thousands of plaintiffs are at least 18 Minnesota counties and five Native American communities — including the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. Duluth, Rochester, Saint Paul and Minneapolis have also joined the lawsuit.
For Mayor Kirt Briggs, the lawsuit wasn’t the right way to respond to the entirety of the opioid epidemic. Briggs said focusing on drug manufacturers and not the countless other groups responsible for getting medication into drug cabinets didn’t gel with his 16-year experience in the medical industry.
Briggs was formerly senior fellow at the medical device company Boston Scientific and a former vice president of sales at multinational pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline.
“To reduce it simplistically and state that one player, and one player alone, is responsible is an oversimplification,” Briggs said. “More importantly it misses the other areas that should be addressed in this epidemic.”
Councilmembers said they have not heard from residents about the decision.
Pharmaceutical companies have supplied billions of opioid pills to consumers across the country in the last several years, according to federal data analyzed by the Washington Post. Overdoses of prescription and illegal opioids have led to tens of thousands of deaths per year, including several in Scott County, state and federal agencies have found.