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Lansing Police Chief on opioid problem in city: "It's getting worse"

LANSING, Mich. (WLNS) - During a meeting Monday night, Lansing City Council members did two things, they declared that the opioid crisis is creating a public nuisance in the city and agreed to allow outside law firms to take action against drug companies on the city's behalf, in an effort to recover costs associated with battling it.

As the opioid epidemic continues to spiral out of control, it's having devastating effects in cities and states across the nation, including right here in Lansing where police and first responders in our community are fighting the epidemic head-on at an overwhelming rate.

"We're not making significant progress, it's getting worse," Lansing Police Chief Mike Yankowski said. "People are dying every single day in our community or we're bringing them back to life."

Chief Yankowski, along with Lansing and East Lansing Fire Chief Randy Talifarro gave testimony during the Committee of the Whole meeting, where they broke down, by the numbers, how this growing opioid epidemic has burdened their departments as public safety personnel.

Chief Yankowski said the response for overdoses has increased since 2015. From Jan. 1 until September 30th of 2017, LPD has already responded to 177 overdoses with 10 Narcan saves and 16 deaths reported.

In 2015 - There were 137 overdoses

In 2016 - There were 155 overdoses and six Narcan saves.

In both 2015 and 2016 there were 21 deaths.

"These numbers here are actually higher," Chief Yankowski said. "Because when the medical examiner does their examinations there's multiple causes but these are the ones that we can contribute 100 percent, not multiple causes of death, but through our investigations we know that these numbers are actually even a little bit higher than that and we put that into perspective for the city of Lansing, that's more deaths due to opioids than homicides and traffic accidents."

As far as resources go, Yankowski said officers spend roughly two hours on every heroin overdose. At least two police officers are responding and a detective is assigned to investigate.

"We are here to save lives and we're going to do what it takes to save lives, but it is taking away from other police duties that our officers are responsible for," Chief Yankowski said.

The Lansing Police Department said it's spent roughly $748,995.75 in the last two years dealing with the opioid problem throughout the city.

That dollar amount includes wage benefits from 2015 to 2017.

Lansing Police officers are also equipped with Naloxone, better known as Narcan, which is administered to someone who has overdosed in an effort to reverse the effects of heroin or other opioids.

Emergency responders at LFD also carry this antidote. At times, EMS will have to administer more than one doses of Narcan to someone who has overdosed.

Many people have been getting their hands on what's called Fentanyl, which is cheaper and more potent than heroin. It can also be deadly.

In fact, in May of 2017, an officer in Ohio, who was responding to a drug-involved call, overdosed after accidentally touching Fentanyl.

Lansing and East Lansing Fire Chief Randy Talifarro said this problem not only affects finances, but also families.

"We're talking about the financial cost but we're not including in there again, many of the other indirect costs when you look at children that lose their parents and what they go through after that or parents that are burying their children," Chief Talifarro said. "Many of these death occur with people that were otherwise healthy."

Both chiefs during their respective testimonies pointed the finger at the drug companies, saying they're responsible for this deadly problem.

"They prescribe for pain, rather than treat the underlying cause of the pain and so they have people that are addicted to the drugs and they develop a tolerance and they need increasingly higher levels of the drug to satisfy that pain," Chief Talifarro said.

In 2010, LPD Special Operations started investigating illegal prescription practices and medical fraud against medical personnel operating in and around Lansing.

According to a presentation by Chief Yankowski, the investigation was a result of prescription pill overdoses which resulted in deaths and well as information related to illegal practices associated to the medical businesses in the city of Lansing.

The Special Operations team was able to identify a pattern regarding fraudulent medical practices which lead to a federally sponsored investigation.

The LPD Special Operations unit contributed between 10,000 to 15,000 hours of investigative personnel time.

The investigation found that the patients who were suffering from real disabilities and disease were the real victims.

"The actions of certain doctors, the actions of certain clinics, is completely despicable," Chief Yankowski said. "They were using these opioid pills to really churn on the opioid epidemic that we are seeing today because it's much cheaper, it's more powerful, it's more available and it's highly, highly addictive and it's affecting all walks of life."

A group of attorneys were also in attendance during the meeting to discuss the type of legal strategy they will take to represent Lansing in what they say, will be a long and expensive battle.

They include David Mittleman from Church Wyble, a division of Grewal Law, Paul Novak of New York-based Weitz and Luxenberg and Mark Bernstein of the Sam Bernstein Law firm.

"The question isn't whether to proceed against those who caused this, Big Pharma and the national distributors, it's who's going to help you," David Mittleman said. "Because it's going to be a battle, it's going to be a war, it's going to take a long commitment and it's going to be expensive."

It could take years before the city sees any monetary benefit from this lawsuit, if any at all, but Mittleman said he and the team of attorneys are willing to eliminate the city's risk by assuming it and only get paid if the city has a recovery.

In other words, the attorneys will only bill the city if there's a settlement, which would then allow the city to recover costs.

"I know the city and mid-Michigan," Mittleman said. "I want to deliver the best representation with the best team."

In a press release before Monday's meeting, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero said he directed City Attorney Jim Smiertka to proceed with litigation against manufacturers and distributors of opioids like fentanyl and hydrocodone.

"We are fighting back against this terrible scourge because it's costing lives, destroying families and undermining the safety of our neighborhoods," Mayor Bernero said. There is a strong legal argument to be made that those who manufacture and recklessly distribute these killer drugs should be held accountable for the damages they cause and the costs the opioid crisis imposes on our police and fire departments."

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