As opioid crisis grows, judge aims for solutions, settlement


Associated Press

The goal is impressive: Hammer out a legal deal that starts guiding the nation out of an epidemic of opioid addiction.

How and when that can happen, if at all, is the subject of talks scheduled to begin today in a federal courthouse in Cleveland.

The judge is bringing together lawyers for governments across the country, drugmakers, distributors and others to start the conversation. Because the aim is to broker a settlement, the judge has closed the discussions to the public and media.

A look at how the sides got to this point and some of the details they have to work out:

THE EPIDEMIC

Opioid addictions and overdoses are a deepening crisis for the country.

The U.S. Centers of Diseases Control and Prevention says 42,000 people died of overdoses in 2016 from opioids, a class of drug that includes powerful prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin; illegal heroin; and fentanyl, a strong synthetic drug sold both through prescriptions and on the street.

President Donald Trump last year declared the crisis a national public health emergency, and a bipartisan National Governors Association letter this month urged him to provide more federal money and coordination for addressing the problem.

In addition to costing lives, officials have worried that it’s hurting the workforce and overwhelming child welfare systems as children of addicts flood the system.

A White House Council of Economic Advisers report last year found the national economic impact of opioid addiction at over $500 billion a year.

THE LAWSUITS

Cities and counties of all sizes have sued companies that make and distribute prescription opioids. Among the plaintiffs so far: Philadelphia; the state of Ohio; Princeton, West Virginia; the Cherokee Nation; and a consortium of counties across Wisconsin.

More than 250 such claims filed in federal courts across the country have been consolidated under Judge Dan Polster, who is based in Cleveland. He has called the epidemic “100 percent man-made,” and he is pushing for a resolution before the case goes to trial.

The judge asked Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine to represent a group of at least nine states that have sued the industry in state courts.

WHY SETTLE?

For the drug industry, it could be easier to enter into one massive settlement than deal with hundreds of claims before multiple judges.

For governments, working together may represent the best chance of not only getting money to pay for treatment and other costs related to the epidemic but also to force reforms.

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