There are more than 2,000 lawsuits by cities and counties against the manufacturers and distributors of opioids. A last-minute settlement this week involving two Ohio counties doesn’t put much of a dent in that number, but four state attorneys general hope a deal they worked out will, for the most part, end the litigation -- while giving communities their due.
The framework calls for five companies to pay out $48 billion. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost calls it "a pile of lumber that’s been dropped on the construction site."
But North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, who helped lead negotiations, says the money would make a big difference.
Josh Stein: The amount of time between getting the resources we need to abate this crisis and actually it happening, more people are going to die. And my job is to try to protect the people and keep them safe and healthy. If we can get substantial funds into this state, that is dedicated to actually helping attack the problems and $48 billion is going to make a huge impact in our ability to help the people of North Carolina.
Lisa Worf: So we'll get to what the $48 billion does in a minute. But this is not a done deal. How many states do you need to sign on to this proposed settlement to have it go through?
Stein: Well, from the perspective of the companies, let's take the drug distributors. And people may not know what I mean when I say "drug distributors." The drug distributors are three companies and most people never heard of them: They're called McKesson, AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal. And they're massive corporations and they play a fundamental role in the delivery of health care in the United States. We want them to actually remain in business, because if we put them out of business, then our health care system would have severe impacts. So they're putting up a large percentage of whatever income they earn over the next 18 years, they will dedicate to this settlement.
For them to do that, they have to believe they're getting some certainty and global peace from their perspective to make it worth it. So, clearly for us to succeed, there has to be very widespread buy-in among states and counties and cities across the country. And that's a lot of what we're going to try to be doing in the coming weeks.
Worf: And what have you heard from other states and local communities at this point?
Stein: Well, the real problem with having all these local governments suing is that it's a crapshoot. It's a total lottery. Whoever got the first court date is getting massive payoffs. And so whoever's number three, four, five and six are seeing these massive payoffs and thinking, "Hey, I'm going to get more than my fair share. So why should I settle? Why should I be part of a national settlement? I can get my people a ton of money." And from a purely selfish perspective, I understand that.
But if if we proceed where 2,000 jurisdictions sue, you know, the top 20 refused to settle and they continue with their court dates so that we can't reach a global resolution. It's just going to be a crapshoot where some of them get a ton of money, some of them don't. But at the end of the day, the companies will end up bankrupted. And 10 jurisdictions in this entire United States will have gotten a lot of money and the rest of us will have people dying in our communities. And to me, that is completely irrational way to deal with the problem of the scope.
Worf: And how much could local communities in North Carolina expect to get from this proposed settlement?
Stein: North Carolina's share is probably around 3-3.5% based on both the harm that exists here and how many people we have. And the way it makes sense to deal with this problem in a rational and fair manner is to have a state-directed plan to get the resources into local communities. We cannot have Mecklenburg County pitted against Union County or Cabarrus County trying to say, "We need all this money." It needs to come from the state, but with the input of local governments. And then to make sure that the money then flows back out across the state in a distributed fashion where it's directed to where the problem really exists.
Worf: How would this settlement be different from the tobacco settlement? I mean, there were several communities that felt that the money went to the state and they they didn't get enough to alleviate the problem in their own communities.
Stein: I agree. The tobacco settlement did not specify in the document, the master settlement agreement, that the money had to go to particular purposes to help people who were struggling with addiction to nicotine. So, we need to lock down in the agreement that the moneys will go to abate the crisis. And there are ways to do that and there's ways to do that that ensures that the local communities will have their voices heard in terms of what strategies to deploy to address the crisis in their communities -- because each community will have different kinds of need.
Worf: Would some of the settlement money go to private attorneys who worked with state and local governments in this litigation?
Stein: I expect so. I, as the Attorney General of North Carolina, I've dedicated a team of lawyers who are state taxpayer-funded, they are career people here. Because I wanted to make sure whatever the state share is in North Carolina goes to help the most people possible. There are plenty of private lawyers who are involved in this and they want to get paid.
Worf: What's the deadline to get this done?
Stein: There is no formal deadline other than the urgency of the situation. And so we are burning the midnight oil to get a deal done in the next few weeks.
Worf: That's North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein. Mr. Stein. Thanks.
Stein: Thank you, Lisa. Appreciate your interest.