Education Health

The Jefferson County Board of Education is suing the marketing and business consulting firm McKinsey & Company over its alleged role in fueling the opioid epidemic. In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court, the school board alleges McKinsey is responsible for the millions of dollars in costs Kentucky school districts are spending to handle the epidemic’s impact on students, families and employees.

According to the lawsuit, Jefferson County Public Schools is seeking damages for costs related to providing special education and related services to children who were exposed to opioids in utero. Attorneys cite research showing children exposed to opioids in the womb are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with a number of disabilities, including severe intellectual disabilities, ADHD and autism, and that they are less likely to meet educational standards. 

Under federal disability and education laws, school districts are responsible for identifying students with disabilities and providing services to accommodate their needs through special education, which often carries higher costs.

The number of students with disabilities has increased statewide in recent years. Attorneys for JCPS say the increase matches up with opioid addiction rates.

“All Jefferson County Public Schools is doing is saying, ‘We are happy to incur the cost for the special education that these children need—it’s what we do. But we simply think that those who created the problem should pay for it, not our taxpayers,” JCPS attorney Ron Johnson told WFPL News Thursday.

Kentucky has one of the country’s highest rates of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS)—opioid withdrawal among newborns who were exposed in the womb due to a mother’s addiction. Statewide, almost 24 of every 1,000 newborns are hospitalized for NAS.

JCPS wants a trial by jury. In addition to costs related to special education services, the school board is seeking damages for the resources it has spent responding to students and families in crisis due to opioid addiction. 

The district is also seeking damages for costs related to opioid addiction among employees, including disability expenses, addiction treatment and increased health insurance premiums. Finally, JCPS says it wants to be compensated for a hit to tax revenues caused by the opioid epidemic.

In their filings, attorneys for JCPS say McKinsey & Company was instrumental in helping Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of the opioid OxyContin, evade a 2007 agreement with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and “turbocharge” sales of the drug through “deceptive marketing strategies.” 

Court documents allege McKinsey & Company designed a strategy for Purdue to identify the most prolific opioid prescribers and target them with increased visits from salespeople. The board also alleges McKinsey advised Purdue Pharma to set up agreements with “specialty” pharmacies that would prescribe opioids when traditional pharmacies declined to do so.

Attorneys cite Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showing Kentucky is one of the opioid epidemic’s worst-hit states, with doctors signing 79.5 opioid prescriptions per 100 people in 2018, compared to the average U.S. rate of 51.4 per 100 people. 

Reached for comment Thursday, McKinsey & Company spokesman Greg Romano emailed a statement, saying the work the company has done for opioid manufacturers “was lawful and we deny any allegations to the contrary.”

Romano also pointed to a $573 million February settlement with 48 states and U.S. territories, including Kentucky, which stands to receive $10.8 million.

“We believe that the settlement we entered into with the states also resolves claims that may be brought by municipalities or school districts. The State Attorneys General are the chief law enforcement officers for their states and are in charge of managing investigations and settlements such as this one. Furthermore, the funds provided by this settlement will be used by the state governments to support communities throughout those states,” the statement from Romano reads.

Schools districts in West Virginia filed a similar complaint Wednesday against McKinsey & Company. Along with Kentucky, the Mountain State is among the worst hit, with 56.2 per 1,000 newborns hospitalized with NAS. 

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.