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Senators ask why Hawaii passed on opioid suit

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - 1/6/2019

Jan. 06--State senators on Friday questioned why Gov. David Ige's administration chose to file lawsuits over President Donald Trump's immigration policies but declined to join in class-

action litigation against drug manufacturers and distributors that are being blamed for the opioid epidemic across the country.

When asked Friday whether the state was pursuing claims against companies that are in the opioid business, state Attorney General Russell Suzuki

said the state did not join more than 40 other states who are suing the companies because Hawaii would have to contribute legal

expenses to participate.

He added that "at this point in time, the opioid epidemic, although in Hawaii is rising, it was not at the level where we had a significant situation like Indiana did, and other states."

That answer prompted state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim to interrupt Suzuki at a Senate Ways and Means Committee briefing to ask, "How do you justify us jumping into the immigration (issue)?"

"It didn't affect us. I mean, you folks pick and choose which cases you wanted to jump into, you wanted to be the lead on the immigration issue that really didn't affect us ... so, you need to be consistent about this," said Kim, (D,

Kalihi Valley-Moanalua-

Halawa).

"Opioids affect us more, more, and it's more dangerous to our citizens and to the lives of our people here than the immigration issue," she said. "We were told, when it was politically correct to do so, that we were going to get involved in the lawsuit on opioids. Your office reported that."

Ige's former state Attorney General Douglas Chin launched a high-profile

legal campaign against Trump's immigration policies shortly after the new president was sworn in,

including filing lawsuits in 2017 challenging Trump's executive orders that banned travel to the U.S.

by nationals from several largely Muslim countries.

"I hope we don't do this because it's politically good for the office, but that it makes sense for the people in the state of Hawaii," Kim said.

Those immigration lawsuits stirred up local and national interest and publicity, and raised Chin's public profile in Hawaii considerably. Because Trump is

unpopular in Hawaii, that litigation probably also paid political dividends for Ige during his re-election campaign last year.

Last year Chin and Kim both campaigned as Democrats for the U.S. House seat representing urban Honolulu, but that seat was finally won by U.S. Rep. Ed Case.

Suzuki said the immigration litigation was about "protecting the United States Constitution."

State officials also considered joining in the opioid lawsuit, and in September 2017 Chin announced Hawaii was joining 40 other states in demanding information and issuing subpoenas to at least eight opioid manufacturers and distributors as part of a multi-state investigation.

At the time, Chin cited federal Centers for Disease Control statistics showing there were more than

33,000 opioid-related deaths in 2015, including 169 in

Hawaii that year. However, the state hasn't joined in the opioid litigation.

Suzuki said the cost to the state for the immigration lawsuit was capped at $200,000, so the state knew exactly how much it would have to pay to pursue the issue. The opioid litigation, however, will continue "for years and years," he said.

"The real problem is that many of the companies that are involved in the production of these drugs like Purdue (Pharma) are on the verge of bankruptcy, and the issue is going to be how can you get around the bankruptcy laws in order to get monies to fund the liabilities that are going to be in the millions and billions of dollars," he said.

"Is the result going to be that Hawaii will be able to get an amount that would be sufficient to justify the litigation? That is the real question," Suzuki said.

If the state did join the opioid lawsuit, agencies such as the state Department of Human Services would be required to produce documentation to prove the harm that is done by opioid addiction on individuals, Suzuki said. That would require review of thousands of files, which can have a tremendous impact on the departments, he said.

State Sen. Kurt Fevella, (R-Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point), told Suzuki that opioid addiction is "maybe not a big problem in your community, but in my community it's a big problem."

"Nobody died through the immigration stuff, but you guys jumped on that real quick," Fevella said. "This opioid thing is not going away. It's really becoming a big problem in Hawaii."

"You're telling me these guys (manufacturers and distributors) are going to go out of business. So what if they go out of business? At least we went try,"

Fevella said. "If we as a state show that this is a priority for us, more so than the immigration, then we can probably get these guys more help. Right now, there's a lot of people that are suffering."

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(c)2019 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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