In 2014, Columbus had an opioid prescription rate of 99.6 for every 100 people - almost one prescription for every man, woman and child living in the city, according to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2016, the latest year for which statistics were provided by local officials, the city’s opioid prescription rate remained one of the highest in the state at 90.7 per 100 people. That compared to the state average of 77.8 per 100 people and the national average of 66.5 per 100 people.
Muscogee County Coroner Buddy Bryan said many people are becoming addicted to the drugs, and he sees the devastating results every day.
“We consider those accidental overdoses in 99.99 percent of the cases,” he said of situations where people die from opioids. “... And we’re seeing at least two or three a month. When I first started, we might have had 12 a year. Now, we’re seeing double the numbers.”
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Bryan said he received a memo two weeks ago from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Medical Examiner’s Office, requesting that he report cases where it is apparent that the pills are being pushed by a local physician or clinic.
“It’s a nationwide epidemic, but it is prevalent in Columbus, Georgia,” Bryan said. “And it’s got the attention of the higher-ups - you know, the Governor on down the line, now, for sure.”
Bryan isn’t the only local official concerned about opioid addictions in Columbus.
Last week, Columbus Council voted to hire a group of attorneys to go after manufacturers and distributors of opioid prescription drugs flooding the local market — much like municipalities went after Tobacco companies in previous years.
City Attorney Clifton Fay said the decision is part of a national movement by cities and counties filing civil action against pharmaceutical companies and other businesses profiting from the abuse of opioid prescription drugs.
Fay said officials are still calculating how much the opioid epidemic is costing the city, and it will be part of the complaint soon to be filed in U.S. District Court. He said the attorneys representing Columbus plan to file the legal document within about two weeks.
The complaint will then be transferred to a court in Ohio for preliminary determinations, said Assistant City Attorney Lucy Sheftall. It will be lumped together with a large group of similar civil actions filed by municipalities across the country in an effort to recoup costs borne by local governments due to opioid-related hospitalizations, incarceration and other services. If the case moves forward, it would return to Columbus to be tried in district court.
The pharmaceutical companies push highly addictive opioids, falsely representing that patients will rarely become addicted.
Attorneys representing Columbus Consolidated Government
The lead lawyers on the case are DuBose Porter of Dublin, Ga., and Mike Fuller out of Hattiesburg, Miss.
“Unfortunately, Columbus-Muscogee County, Georgia, has been especially harmed by the opioid crisis,” according to information provided to the city by the lawyers. “The opioid prescribing rates in Columbus-Muscogee County, as reported by the CDC, are extremely high, consistently above the national and state averages - which are themselves too high.
“... The pharmaceutical companies push highly addictive opioids, falsely representing that patients will rarely become addicted,” the document continues. “They spread their false and deceptive statements by marketing their opioids directly to doctors and patients and they deploy seemingly unbiased and independent third parties that they control to spread their claims.”
Though particularly prevalent in Columbus, the high level of opioid prescriptions are a concern across the state, according to CDC statistics.
“According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Georgia was among the states to experience a statistically significant increase in drug overdose deaths in 2014 as compared to 2013,” attorneys wrote.
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said opioid addiction leads to Heroin use, prostitution and other criminal activity. It’s a problem that’s escalating and has to be addressed.
“We are not talking about the common use of painkillers by citizens recovering from surgeries or going through cancer treatment,” she explained. “Columbus, like much of the country, is feeling the effect of business decisions by drug companies to saturate markets, create addicts and reap the financial benefit of that created demand. It's only fair that they re-purpose their opioid profits to help cover the cost of the harm they have caused to this community.”
In the resolution approved by Columbus councilors, the local opioid epidemic was described as a serious local problem, affecting public health, safety, security, as well as city finances.
“... Whereas, Columbus, Georgia has expended, is expending, and will continue to expend in the future, municipal funds to respond to the serious public health and safety crisis involving opioid abuse, addiction, morbidity and mortality within Columbus, Ga.,” the document reads. “... Now, therefore, be it resolved by the Council of Columbus, Georgia, that based upon the above, the Council of Columbus, Georgia (is) declaring the opioid crisis a public nuisance which must be abated for the benefit of Columbus and its residents and citizens.”
Bryan, the local coroner, said he handled a recent case where a man had 27 different medications. Four of them were opioids — one of them a huge bottle of liquid Oxycodone, which Bryan had never seen before. The other was a huge bottle of 90 Oxycodone tablets.
He said the 74-year-old man, who had Diabetes and other medical issues, didn’t die of an overdose. But his case shows the extent to which people are using opioids in the community.
“There’s hardly a house I go in that they don’t have Oxycodone,” he said. “So it’s very prevalent.”