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Oregon, among last holdout states, to join opioid agreement

Bottle of pills marked 'OPIOID'
Posted at 5:25 PM, Dec 20, 2021

SALEM, Ore. (AP) -- Oregon, one of the last holdout states in joining a $26 billion settlement with the three largest distributors of opioids and drugmaker Johnson & Johnson, is on the verge of signing on, the state's attorney general said Monday.

The state had argued with cities and counties over disbursement of Oregon's expected $329 million share and how much should go to attorneys fees. But agreement is now "imminent," said Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.

The settlement, which would be the second-biggest in U.S. history, would address damage wrought by opioids.

As of just over one week ago, at least 45 states had signed onto the settlement or signaled their intent to, and at least 4,012 counties and cities had confirmed participation, according to plaintiffs' attorneys.

The three drug distributors -- AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson -- and Johnson & Johnson agreed in July to pay the combined $26 billion to resolve thousands of state and local government lawsuits. But if the defendants feel there's a lack of participation by states and local jurisdictions, it could cause them to back away from the landmark agreement, or eventually reduce the settlement amount.

Plaintiffs' lawyers, who have been working the settlement on the national level and urging cities, counties and states to sign on, applauded the breakthrough in Oregon.

"As more communities join in from each state, the greater the funds these communities will receive," lawyer Joe Rice said Monday. "This national settlement is the most efficient way to bring urgently needed resources into communities, with funds being delivered as early as April 2022."

In exchange for the payout, participating states, counties and cities would have to drop any lawsuits against the defendants and agree not to sue them in the future for the opioid epidemic.

But some feel the settlement isn't enough and doesn't cover the damage caused by opioids, which were overprescribed in massive numbers. In the U.S., more than 500,000 deaths over the last two decades have been linked to opioids, both prescription drugs and illegal ones.

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson has called the settlement "woefully insufficient." Instead of joining, he sued AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson for $38 billion.

In Oregon, the agreement still needs to be formally approved by city councils and county commissions to become final, Rosenblum noted.

Some have already taken steps. The Yamhill County Board of Commissioners unanimously authorized the county counsel to approve the settlement last week, said Commissioner Casey Kulla. In the county southwest of Portland, as in many others, the opioid epidemic has caused overdoses, addiction and homelessness.

According to Rosenblum's office, the agreement between the state and local governments says:

-- Almost half of Oregon's share would go into a fund that would be used to study the availability and efficacy of substance use prevention, treatment and recovery services across the state. The funds would also be used to address treatment and prevention of substance use disorder, focused on statewide and regional programs and services.

-- The remaining 55% of Oregon's share would go directly to cities and counties to pay for prevention, treatment and recovery services at the local level.

"Every dollar we receive must be used judiciously and wisely," Rosenblum said. "For starters, it will provide us with the ability to increase access to lifesaving treatment and recovery services and will support individuals and families who continue to suffer from substance use disorder."

The settlement is second only to the $200 billion-plus tobacco settlement, in 1998, with the nation's four largest tobacco companies.