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Global Settlement Would Resolve Ongoing And Future Opioid Crisis Lawsuits

NOEL KING, HOST:

Some of the country's biggest drug companies are settling thousands of opioid-related lawsuits all at once with a $26 billion settlement. Now, that settlement also includes provisions by which those companies would agree to more rigorous oversight. NPR's addiction correspondent Brian Mann is following this story. Hey, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So this is sort of developing as we speak. What did you learn this morning?

MANN: Yeah, as you say, the details are still being finalized and sorted out here. But the settlement's expected to involve Johnson & Johnson as well as three big corporations that have served as prescription drug wholesalers - AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and also McKesson. In a briefing with reporters this morning, Joe Rice with the firm Motley Rice - he's one of the lead attorneys suing Big Pharma over opioids - he described this package as being in the very final stages. And once it's agreed to, it will then go to all of the 50 states. The individual states will have to decide whether this package with $26 billion is enough for them, whether it has enough oversight and safety. So once this thing is inked, Noel, there's a big process ahead of elected officials all over the country looking at this, seeing if it works for their communities.

KING: And then if it does and $26 billion - these companies pay out $26 billion, where does that money go?

MANN: Yeah, so the lion's share - and this is interesting - is committed to opioid treatment and abatement, about $23 billion. So this would be a game-changer for a lot of these communities scrambling to fund addiction care at a time when overdose deaths are at record levels. We had more than 93,000 drug fatalities last year, many of them still from opioids.

KING: Yes, and to that end, if this deal is finalized, as I understand it, these companies are going to agree to more oversight and monitoring on opioid medications. How would that work?

MANN: Yeah, the people involved in this negotiation, Noel, said this was a big priority. And what we've learned is that as opioid addiction grew in the U.S., these big drug distributors just kept shipping tens of millions of pills, flooding neighborhood pharmacies and small towns with pain pills. Under this plan - again, if it's finalized - AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson would have to share data, much more data, about opioid shipments, giving a clearer picture of hot spots around the country where opioid prescribing may be growing risky or dangerous.

KING: OK, now, as this is happening, at the same time New York State's Attorney General Letitia James says she has reached a deal with those three big companies that you mentioned worth about $1.1 billion. Why is New York doing its own thing separately?

MANN: Yeah, so Tish James was on a faster track because she sued these drug distributors and was actually in court here in New York with a trial underway, and that drove faster negotiations. And this New York deal has given us more of a glimpse of what the national settlement will look like. We're seeing these big drug companies will have roughly 17 years to pay out these settlements. The corporations will also admit no wrongdoing. And I should say, Noel, NPR has reached out to these companies for their reaction to this deal, and so far, no response.

KING: OK. During this epidemic, more than half a million people died of overdoses in this country. Do you think this deal will end opioid-related lawsuits in the same way that Big Tobacco settlement of the '90s ended tobacco-related lawsuits?

MANN: No, this only involves four companies. And what we're going to see is a lot more of these lawsuits moving forward against the big pharmacy chains next - CVS, Walgreens and Walmart. And those cases are expected to go forward in October.

KING: NPR's Brian Mann. Thank you, Brian.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.