Economist: $2.5B to abate opioid crisis in WVa community

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — A 15-year plan to abate the opioid crisis in a West Virginia community will cost local officials $2.5 billion, a forensic economist has testified.

George Barrett testified Tuesday that Cabell County and the city of Huntington would need to spend $144 million to implement the plan and the annual cost would rise to $197 million by the 15th year, The Herald-Dispatch reported. The governments have combined annual budgets of less than $87 million.

The testimony came in the seventh week of a landmark civil trial against three large opioid distributors. A lawsuit filed by Cabell County and the city of Huntington accuses drug distributors AmerisourceBergen Drug Co., Cardinal Health Inc. and McKesson Corp. of fueling the U.S. crisis. The plaintiffs argue that the companies created a “public nuisance” by flooding the area with tens of millions of opioid doses over eight years and ignoring the signs that the small community along the Ohio River was being ravaged by addiction.

The companies, in turn, say poor communication and pill quotas set by federal agents are to blame, along with a rise in prescriptions written by doctors.

Testimony this week has focused on the drug abatement plan and its cost.

Barrett’s findings were based on the report of Caleb Alexander, a pharmacoepidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Alexander came up with an abatement plan for the community he said could reduce overdoses, overdose deaths and the number of people with opioid use disorder by half.

McKesson attorney Timothy Hester questioned Barrett’s qualifications in coming up with the estimate, which he called inflated.

He said Barret is not an expert in healthcare economics and had estimated it would cost $12 million to run the harm reduction program, but another witness testified she was able to run such a program with $60,000 a year.

The Cabell-Huntington Health Department spent about $225,000 on its harm reduction program in 2019, but the abatement plan calls for expanding the program.

Hester also said the majority of medical claims are paid through Medicaid, not city and county officials. He asked that the judge to toss the testimony, but the judge did not immediately rule.