A bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general announced on Wednesday a $26 billion national settlement with drugmaker Johnson & Johnson and three companies that distributed opioid painkillers even as addiction and overdose deaths skyrocketed.
"The opioid epidemic has torn families apart and killed thousands of North Carolinians," said North Carolina state Attorney General Josh Stein, one of the lead negotiators.
Stein said the deal will "force these drug companies to pay a historic amount of money to bring much-needed treatment and recovery services" to North Carolina and other states that sign on to the settlement.
States have 30 days to decide whether to embrace the deal. Local governments will have 150 days to sign on.
The ultimate amount of payouts by the companies will hinge on how many governments agree to suspend their opioid lawsuits.
Late Wednesday a coalition of private attorneys representing many of the state and local governments suing the four firms endorsed the settlement.
"Our country's opioid epidemic is a nationwide public health crisis that requires a nationwide solution," the group, known as the Plaintiffs Executive Committee said in a statement.
However, one state AG has already signaled his opposition to the deal. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey of West Virginia said in a statement to NPR the deal allocates too much of the $26 billion based on population rather than severity of the opioid crisis.
"West Virginia is a resounding no on these agreements and will continue to litigate and negotiate outside the framework of today's announcement," Morrisey said.
A civil trial against AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson over the companies' opioid practices in West Virginia has is in its final stages, with closing arguments expected in Charleston, W.Va., next week.
If this deal is embraced by most states, the three drug distributors will spread their $21 billion payments over 18 years. Johnson & Johnson will contribute $5 billion over a nine-year span.
In a statement, Johnson & Johnson said the settlement "will directly support state and local efforts to make meaningful progress in addressing the opioid crisis."
J&J once again denied any wrongdoing in its manufacture and marketing of opioids, describing its actions as "appropriate and responsible."
However, as part of this agreement, J&J agreed to no longer manufacture opioid medications. The company voluntarily halted sales of prescription opioids last year.
In a joint statement, the three drug distributors — AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson — said the settlement was expected to resolve "a substantial majority of opioid lawsuits filed by state and local governmental entities."
They added that while the companies "strongly dispute the allegations in these lawsuits," the settlement will deliver "meaningful relief to communities across the United States."
During a press conference Wednesday afternoon, state attorneys general noted the devastating loss of life in the U.S. since the pharmaceutical industry began aggressively marketing opioid pain pills in the late 1990s.
Overdose deaths hit a new record of 93,000 in 2020, driven largely by the rise of fatalities linked to the synthetic opioid fentanyl.
In an interview with NPR, New York Attorney General Letitia James expressed disappointment that the firms involved in the settlement have not acknowledged wrongdoing.
"It's very, very frustrating. But in order to get any concession, as much resources as we possibly could particularly at this point in time, we had to make concessions," James said.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
It is a landmark in the nation's opioid crisis. A group of state attorneys general has reached a $26 billion settlement with companies that made and distributed prescription painkillers. The national deal also bans Johnson & Johnson from making or marketing opioids for the next decade. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann is here with more.
And Brian, let's start with people, the human beings who this could help. Ninety-three thousand Americans died from drug overdoses last year. How could this settlement slow the opioid epidemic?
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Yeah. The state attorneys general who announced this settlement today say it is a huge step toward finally curbing this public health crisis. More than half a million Americans have died from opioid overdoses since the drug industry started aggressively marketing these highly addictive pain pills. North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, who led these negotiations, said today most of the $26 billion will go directly to treatment and recovery.
JOSH STEIN: The vast majority of the resources from this - secured from the settlement must go to abatement. It is a provision in the agreements that we have with the defendants. They will be subject to court order.
MANN: And so for cash-strapped drug programs and public health departments around the country, Mary Louise, experts are saying this could really be a game-changer.
KELLY: And how quickly could it change the game? What has to happen before this money starts flowing?
MANN: Yeah. There is a process now where states have 30 days to opt in. The AGs who spoke today say they believe roughly 40 states will do so quickly. They hope to get more states on board. Local governments have a bit longer to weigh in on whether they'll join this settlement. The payouts could actually be reduced if a bunch of states don't sign on. And we have already heard from Attorney General Patrick Morrisey from West Virginia, who signaled he won't accept the deal. He doesn't think enough of the money goes to small rural states that have been hit really hard by the opioid crisis. But experts tell NPR they think a lot of state and local governments will embrace this. And I should say, late this afternoon, a coalition of attorneys representing many of these governments issued a joint statement. They're endorsing this settlement.
KELLY: What about the drug companies? What are they saying today?
MANN: Yeah. These firms have long denied any wrongdoing. And in a statement to NPR this afternoon, Johnson & Johnson again said the company acted in a way with its opioid sales that was appropriate and responsible. They agreed to this settlement, they say, as part of an effort to just resolve these thousands of lawsuits. As you mentioned earlier, this deal does prohibit J&J from making or marketing opioid medications for the next 10 years. The company had voluntarily stopped making opioid pills last year. I did speak about this part of the settlement with New York Attorney General Letitia James. The structure does not cause these companies to acknowledge any wrongdoing. And she said that's disappointing.
LETITIA JAMES: It's very, very frustrating. But in order to get any concession, as much resources as we possibly could, particularly at this point in time, we had to make concessions.
MANN: And this really is part of a pattern. Over and over during this reckoning over corporate America's role in the opioid crisis, companies have agreed to pay billions of dollars to settle these civil lawsuits. But we've seen few corporate executives charged criminally, and these companies have rarely admitted any wrongdoing.
KELLY: And what is the big picture here? Will opioid lawsuits just finish? Do they end the same way that the tobacco settlement ended the legal fight over the harm caused by cigarettes?
MANN: No, this particular legal fight is expected to grind on. This resolves the situation with four of the big players, but a lot of other lawsuits are underway around the country, including against pharmacy chains that sold these opioids. CVS, Walgreens and Walmart still face that legal reckoning, but this is a big step toward national resolution.
KELLY: Thank you, Brian.
MANN: Thank you, Mary Louise.
KELLY: NPR's Brian Mann. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.