Tentative opioid lawsuit settlement announced as deaths from drug overdose climb

Cities and county governments are in line to receive most of North Carolina’s share of the $26 billion opioid lawsuit settlement announced this week.

A bipartisan group of state attorneys general agreed to settle lawsuits with drug maker Johnson & Johnson and drug distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, and McKesson. The three distributors together will pay $21 billion over 18 years, and the Johnson & Johnson would pay $5 billion over nine years, with $3.7 billion paid in the first three years.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein was one of the chief negotiators.

At least 44 states, 95% of cities and counties suing, and others suing the companies must sign on to the agreement to get part of the money, according to The Council of State Governments. States have a month to sign on, and cities and counties have 150 days.

North Carolina would be eligible for up to $750 million, with 80% going to all counties and 17 municipalities, 15% going to the state, which the legislature would use to address the opioid epidemic, and 5% going into an incentive fund to get local governments to sign on. The NC Association of County Commissioners is urging counties to sign.

Each local government would have to create a separate fund for the money and use it for opioid-related expenses.

The first payments are expected to arrive in April 2022, according to Stein’s office.

Lawsuits claimed that drug makers and distributors hold responsibility for helping fuel the opioid epidemic. The companies deny responsibility.

Even as this group of  lawsuits connected to opioid sales and distribution took a step toward conclusion, hospitalizations and deaths from drug overdose climbed.

Shortly before the tentative settlement was announced, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data showing a sharp rise in overdose deaths last year. Drug overdose death in the US increased more than 29% in 2020. In North Carolina, the increase was nearly 35%, with more than 3,000 reported deaths from overdose.

The COVID-19 pandemic has overshadowed the opioid epidemic, but the NC Department of Health and Human Services continues to update the Opioid Action Plan it first released in 2017.

The May 2021 update says that 62% of overdose deaths in 2019 involved two or more substances. While overdoses from commonly prescribed opioids are declining, overdoses from heroin, fentanyl, and fentanyl-type drugs are spiking, according to the updated report.

In the first three months of 2021, emergency hospital visits for opioid overdoses in the state were 22% higher than the first three months of 2020, according to preliminary data.

The updated action plan widens the focus to include substances in addition to opioids, and looks to expand drug treatment, prevention, and harm reduction for historically marginalized communities.

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