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Missouri Could Get $500 Million From Opioid Lawsuit Settlement If Cities Sign On

 Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt announces a potential settlement in a lawsuit against manufacturers and distributors of addictive opioid painkillers on Thursday, July 22, 2021.
Sarah Fentem
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt announces a potential settlement in a lawsuit against manufacturers and distributors of addictive opioid painkillers on Thursday, July 22, 2021.

Missouri agreed to settle a lawsuit against opioid manufacturer Johnson & Johnson and three distributors for their part in the opioid crisis. But before states can collect, they must ask many cities and towns to drop their own lawsuits against the companies.

Missouri could receive $450 million as its share of a nationwide settlement of lawsuits against four companies that manufactured and distributed opioids.

The state in 2017 sued manufacturers of prescription painkillers for their role in the opioid addiction crisis, alleging the companies didn’t inform customers of how addictive prescription opioids are and didn’t properly monitor how many pills were being shipped to states.

Missouri officials are still finalizing an agreement with Johnson & Johnson, a drug manufacturer, and the Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and McKesson pharmaceutical distribution companies.

If a settlement with drugmaker Purdue Pharma is finalized soon, it could mean the state’s total payouts could top $500 million, state officials said.

“Our lawsuit has always had a singular mission: Attain justice for victims and the families of the victims of this decades-long opioid epidemic that has been unleashed on the people of Missouri by callous pharmaceutical companies,” Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt said Thursday.

Last year, about 2,000 people in Missouri died of drug overdoses, and nearly 73% of those victims had used opioids. Since 2016, about 1,000 people in Missouri have died of opioid overdoses each year.

The potential national settlement comes with several strings attached: Under the terms of the settlement, an unspecified number of states must sign the agreement for it to be binding, according to a statement from the three distributors.

If enough states sign on, Missouri and other states must ask many cities and towns to drop their own lawsuits against the companies and sign on to the agreement to get the full payout, Schmitt said.

Schmitt is confident many cities and counties will forgo their lawsuits and join the agreement. Local governments have until the end of the year to sign on.

If smaller jurisdictions don’t sign on, Missouri would receive less than half of the approximately $450 million settlement from the four companies, he said.

Many people became addicted to opioids after using prescription painkillers like those made and distributed by Johnson & Johnson and the three distributors, said Patti Fitzwalter, a St. Louis-area advocate for addiction treatment whose son Michael died of an overdose in 2014.

“Our son took his grandmother’s prescription painkillers because they weren’t locked up,” she said. “The transition to heroin, now fentanyl, is easy because it’s cheaper and easier to get than prescriptions.”

The settlement money is desperately needed in Missouri, where addiction treatment is hard to find, she said.

“I can’t even begin to express how important this litigation is,” Fitzwalter said. “We need so many more treatment centers, in-house rehab facilities for people still struggling, especially for those without insurance.”

The settlement funds will be funneled through four state agencies and go directly to drug treatment, education and intervention programs, Schmitt said.

The settlement does not include any admission of wrongdoing by Johnson & Johnson, according to a release from the company. If the settlement is finalized, the company will agree to stop selling opioids.

“This national settlement agreement is designed to resolve the vast majority of litigation-based claims regarding the past sales of the Company’s prescription opioid medications,” company officials said in the statement. “This is not an admission of any liability.”

Schmitt said that even though the companies have not admitted fault, the settlement is the fastest way to funnel much-needed addiction treatment funding to state agencies.

“These pharma companies operated on the basis of greed and misrepresented the addictive nature of these drugs, that’s what I know,” he said. “I’m glad that we’re able to advocate as hard as for the people of this state and we can find some relief right now.”

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

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