NC counties, cities await at least $850 million from national opioid settlements

As drug overdoses increase, North Carolina medical providers and community workers await long-expected settlement funds as part of landmark litigation by states’ attorneys general against opioid manufacturers and distributors for their role in a decades-long national opioid epidemic.

OxyContin creator Purdue Pharma and nine attorneys general, not including North Carolina’s Josh Stein, are nearing a settlement expected to eclipse the original $4.3 billion agreed to last fall. Stein initially opposed the agreement before reversing his position last summer.

North Carolina is preparing to distribute at least $750 million from a $26.4 billion settlement reached in November between states and Johnson & Johnson, along with three distributors.

Another $100 million — if not more — will be decided in the coming days as nine states look to conclude negotiations with the Sackler family, which owns pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma.

The company pleaded guilty to three federal criminal charges in November 2020, including conspiracy to defraud the government, after admitting to illegal kickbacks and pushing its highly addictive painkiller, OxyContin, to doctors suspected of writing illegal prescriptions.

Many experts point to the widespread abuse of OxyContin as a driver of the epidemic. More than 930,000 Americans died from fatal drug overdoses from 1999 to 2020, according to a study by the National Center for Health Statistics. Preliminary reports estimate an additional 100,000 overdose deaths in 2021.

From 2000-20, more than 28,000 people in North Carolina died from drug overdose, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Tribes Reach $590 Million Opioid Settlement With Johnson & Johnson

Hundreds of Native American tribes that have suffered disproportionately high addiction and death rates during the opioid epidemic agreed on Tuesday to a tentative settlement of $590 million with Johnson & Johnson and the country’s three largest drug distributors.

Together with a deal struck last fall between the distributors and the Cherokee Nation for $75 million, the tribes will be paid a total of $665 million. Purdue Pharma has already committed at least tens of millions more to the tribes in a settlement that is in mediation.

“We are not solving the opioid crisis with this settlement, but we are getting critical resources to tribal communities to help address the crisis,” said Steven Skikos, a top lawyer for the tribes.

Native Americans have endured disproportionately high opioid-related overdose deaths, by many metrics. In 2016, for example, Oglala Lakota County in South Dakota, home to the Oglala Lakota tribe, had an opioid-related death rate of 21 people per 100,000, more than twice the state average. According to one study, pregnant American Indian women were as much as 8.7 times more likely than pregnant women from other demographic groups to be diagnosed with opioid dependency or abuse.

Maine unveils plan to use opioid settlement funds

Maine is getting tens of millions of dollars from a nationwide settlement with several pharmaceutical companies over their role in the opioid crisis.

The settlement, announced by Attorney General Aaron Frey, will resolve dozens of individual lawsuits filed by Maine cities and towns against opioid manufacturer Johnson & Johnson and drug distributors Cardinal, McKesson, and AmerisourceBergen. The state will get more than $130 million over the next 18 years as part of the nationwide settlement. 

Frey said the agreement “paves the way for Maine to receive significant resources” to address the opioid epidemic that is “ravaging” the state.

“At a time when Mainers continue to suffer from the pain and loss inflicted by the opioid epidemic, this agreement and the settlement it secures represents a significant opportunity to confront the crisis head on,” he said in a statement. “These resources will be deployed to address this crisis, provide necessary treatment for addiction, and save lives.” 

Under the plan, at least 20% of the proceeds will go to the state to address the epidemic; 30% of the funds will be diverted to the 39 Maine counties and municipalities that either filed litigation against the settling companies or that have more than 10,000 residents, according to the attorney general’s office. 

Throwing out the $4.5 billion settlement with Purdue Pharma is the right call

A federal judge’s decision to overturn a $4.5 billion settlement between Purdue Pharma and assorted state, local, and tribal governments is the right call. The settlement wrongly shielded the billionaire Sackler family, who owned the company that made the prescription painkiller OxyContin, from any and all civil liability in opioid-related tragedies.

As reported by The New York Times, the settlement was part of a complex restructuring plan for Purdue Pharma that was approved in September by a bankruptcy judge. But Judge Colleen McMahon of the US District of New York pulled the plug on it, because it protected the Sackler family from future civil lawsuits. After the Sacklers took more than $10 billion out of it, Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy. The Sacklers, who did not file for personal bankruptcy, offered to contribute toward the original settlement, “if – and only if – every member of the family could ‘achieve global peace’ from all civil [not criminal] litigation,” the judge wrote. And that, she said, was wrong. She did, however, also call the legal issue of the Sacklers’ release “a great unsettled question” of bankruptcy law and wrote, “This opinion will not be the last word on the subject, nor should it.”

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