The opioid epidemic has racked up enormous costs for local governments in New Mexico, as cities and counties struggle to pay for medical care, law enforcement and treatment services for people dealing with addiction.
In recent years a growing number of local governments have been taking opioid manufacturers and distributors to court over those costs—including Mora County northeast of Santa Fe.
Mora County’s struggle with the opioid epidemic is, for the most part, the same story you’ll find across New Mexico.
Dr. Joshua Leiderman, who works at Mora Valley Community Clinic, has seen the epidemic's impact first hand. "This is enormous, and has been unaddressed for a very long time. If you look across the community almost no family is untouched," Leiderman said.
Only 4,500 people live in Mora County, but the overdose death rates here are almost double the state average.
"I think all of us should be appalled that you come to outlying areas of a poor state like New Mexico, where we don’t have high speed internet, the schools are in horrible disrepair," Leiderman said. "And yet two outfits seem to have no trouble with logistics here, and that is big pharma delivering narcotics and illegal narcotics making their way up here."
There are no detox or treatment centers here, and Leiderman is the only doctor in the county licensed to prescribe suboxone, a drug that can treat opioid addiction.
That shortage helps explain why fighting the opioid epidemic here has been so hard—and why the county has decided to sue some of the country’s biggest drug companies to try and get relief. Law enforcement, social services and behavioral health programs are stretched so thin trying to deal with the epidemic that Mora County Commissioner Paula Garcia said local government just can’t keep up.
"This structure here is supposed to be our county complex, and until that’s finished we’re operating out of those trailers," Garcia said, pointing to a half-finished building on the town of Mora's main street.
"So we were doing some shuffling with our office space, and the behavioral health office had to be closed temporarily."
Mora is a beautiful county, but median income here is under $24,000. It’s rural, and jobs are hard to find. Garcia says getting by here is not easy for a lot of people.
"I think fundamentally there’s a great need for mental health services in these areas. When you start piling on addiction on top of just a fundamental need, it puts us in a crisis mode," she said.
And according to the County Commission, part of the blame lies with companies that manufacture and distribute opioid painkillers.
In a major lawsuit filed in district court, Mora County alleges that those companies used deceptive marketing practices to promote addictive prescription drugs, downplayed the risks, and left taxpayers and county government on the hook to clean up the mess. It’s asking a judge to award the county damages that Mora can use to fund treatment and prevention programs.
Mora County attorney Michael Aragon said it’s an ambitious case, to put it mildly.
"When you’re taking on pharmaceutical companies, distributors, doctors—this is no small undertaking," Aragon said, adding that even though this case might seem like a long-shot, the county has hired some big outside law firms that have brought similar suits in other states.
"I don’t think the pharmaceutical companies are just going to roll over and say ‘Yes, mea culpa, here’s a check.' That’s obviously not going to happen. This litigation is going to take years," Aragon said.
John Parker, a representative with the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, said that while he couldn't comment on this specific litigation, cases like this are not productive ways to address the epidemic.
Parker said distribution companies are working to curb abuse, trying to work with local governments and improving oversight of addictive pain meds.
"As an industry, I think we feel that these lawsuits are a distraction," he said. "It’s a difficult challenge when you’re basically reacting to the demand that’s out there. We continue to enhance our tracking of these transactions, our data sharing with the DEA."
Pharmaceutical companies KUNM contacted for this story had similar responses—that they are working to prevent addiction and doing their best to stop the opioid epidemic.
But that’s not enough for Mora County. Commissioner Paula Garcia said this lawsuit is about nothing less than the survival of the community.
"We’re a small community," she said. "In order to thrive, in order to continue as a people, as a community with an identity, as a place, we need people to continue living here. Even losing one person hurts. It hurts all of us, because it’s that lost potential."
Since Mora County filed suit, Bernalillo County and the state of New Mexico have also announced their own suits against drug companies for their role in the opioid epidemic.
KUNM's Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the McCune Charitable Foundation. Find this story and more at www.publichealthnm.org.