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4 U.S. drug distributors agree to pay $26B opioid settlement

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Four of the biggest health care corporations in the U.S. agreed today to pay $26 billion to settle claims that they helped fuel the opioid crisis. This is the biggest opioid settlement with the drug industry so far. Most of the money will go to fund drug rehab and harm reduction programs at a time when opioid overdoses are killing more Americans than ever before. NPR's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Local and state governments have been suing the drug industry for the better part of a decade, arguing companies made and distributed big quantities of addictive pain pills recklessly, contributing to a deadly wave of addiction. North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein says the settlement finalized today with AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, Johnson & Johnson and McKesson ends thousands of those lawsuits. The deal creates a stable stream of new funding to help people with substance use disorder over the next 20 years.

JOSH STEIN: We will start to see important programs, programs that deal with treatment, programs that deal with harm reduction, programs that we know work in terms of helping people live better lives but are not adequately funded today.

MANN: Stein helped negotiate the settlement, which includes 46 states and the vast majority of local governments that filed opioid lawsuits against these companies. In separate statements, the four corporations involved in the deal were adamant they've done nothing wrong. Company officials said this payout represents an effort to end costly litigation while helping communities recover from the opioid crisis. This deal is only about a tenth the size of the tobacco settlement of the 1990s, but according to Stein, it improves on that earlier deal, where much of the money paid out by Big Tobacco ended up being spent on things other than public health.

STEIN: We're very much aware of the problems with the tobacco settlement in terms of the money being used on other governmental functions - tax cuts, filling potholes. And so we put many restrictions into this deal to ensure that the funds go to attacking the opioid crisis.

MANN: This deal also requires drug distributors to create a new monitoring system to raise red flags if unsafe quantities of opioid pain medications are being shipped to communities in the future. Joe Rice is an attorney with the firm Motley Rice, which represents many of the local governments that filed these lawsuits. He said some critics will argue the payouts aren't big enough given the devastation caused by prescription opioids. But according to Rice, this deal is a good faith effort to hold companies accountable for a public health crisis that involved a lot of actors.

JOE RICE: Anytime you have very complex litigation that involves not only the defendants but the conduct of the FDA, the DEA, the conduct of state enforcement, you have to put everything in the bowl and mix it up and try to figure out what's the right answer.

MANN: This deal doesn't end the legal reckoning over the opioid crisis. There are still thousands of opioid lawsuits underway around the country, many of them targeting pharmacy chains - including CVS, Walgreens and Walmart - that sold opioid medications directly to customers. Purdue Pharma is also working to negotiate a final settlement for its role in making and marketing the opioid OxyContin. A mediator involved in those talks says members of the Sackler family, who own Purdue Pharma, have sweetened their offer to roughly $6 billion. A deal in that case could come as early as next week. Brian Mann, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.