J&J and others reportedly on verge of $26bn US opioid settlement

The three biggest US drug distribution companies and the drugmaker Johnson & Johnson are on the verge of a $26bn settlement covering thousands of lawsuits over the opioids crisis in the US, two people with knowledge of the plans told the Associated Press on Tuesday.

As a precursor to the bigger deal, the distribution companies AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson agreed mid-trial to pay up to $1.1bn to settle claims by New York state and two of its biggest counties over their role in the opioid epidemic, the state’s attorney general said.

That trial is expected to continue, but the settlement leaves only three drug manufacturers as defendants.

The deal with the New York attorney general, Letitia James, and the Long Island counties of Nassau and Suffolk came three weeks into the first jury trial accusing companies of profiting from a flood of addictive painkillers that devastated communities.

“While no amount of money will ever compensate for the millions of addictions, the hundreds of thousands of deaths, or the countless communities decimated by opioids, this money will be vital in preventing any future devastation,” James said.

Hunter Shkolnik, a lawyer for Nassau county, said that unlike the proposed national settlement, the New York deal “is not contingent on the rest of the country or other states joining”.

In a joint statement, the distributors called the New York settlement “an important step toward finalizing a broad settlement with states, counties, and political subdivisions”.

Johnson & Johnson settled with New York last month, just before the trial there started. It reiterated that it’s prepared to contribute up to $5bn to the national settlement.

“There continues to be progress toward finalizing this agreement and we remain committed to providing certainty for involved parties and critical assistance for families and communities in need,“ the company said.

“The settlement is not an admission of liability or wrongdoing, and the company will continue to defend against any litigation that the final agreement does not resolve.”

The distribution companies face thousands of similar legal claims from state and local governments across the country and have long been trying to settle them all. The New York deal would become a part of a national agreement if one can be struck this year, according to one of the sources.

The state and local governments say distribution companies did not have proper controls to flag or halt shipments to pharmacies that received outsized shares of powerful and addictive prescription painkillers. The companies have maintained that they were filling orders of legal drugs placed by doctors – so they shouldn’t shoulder blame for the nation’s addiction and overdose crisis.

An AP analysis of federal distribution data found that enough prescription opioids were shipped in 2012 for every person in the US to have a 20-day supply.

Opioids – including both prescription drugs and illegal ones like heroin and illicitly produced fentanyl – have been linked to more than 500,000 deaths in the US since 2000.

Under the New York settlement, the three companies would provide more than $1bn to be used to abate the epidemic in the state. The money would be delivered in 18 annual payments, with the first one arriving this year.

The companies would also establish a national clearinghouse of data on opioid distribution, and the data would be monitored by an independent body. Johnson & Johnson would also agree not to produce any opioids for the next 10 jare.

Including the New York case, there are currently three trials across the US of government entities’ claims that companies should be held liable for the opioid crisis. One in California focuses solely on drugmakers, and one scheduled to wrap up this month in West Virginia aims only at distributors. That could be ended if a deal is reached.

Other cases are queued up to start. The only one of its kind to reach a verdict so far was two years ago in Oklahoma. Daar, a judge ordered Johnson & Johnson, the only company not to settle before that trial, to pay $465m. The company is appealing the judgement.

The New York case is the broadest one to go to trial so far – and the first with a jury deciding the case rather than only a judge.

Johnson & Johnson settled for $230m just before the case started. The remaining defendants are Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Endo International and AbbVie.

With so many cases approaching trial, there’s been a flurry of proposed or realized settlements over opioids. OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma declared bankruptcy as part of its effort to settle cases. It is proposing a reorganization that would use all future profits to fight the epidemic as part of a deal the company values at about $10bn over time. That plan will face some opposition at a confirmation hearing in US Bankruptcy Court next month.

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