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States And Companies Reach A $26 Billion National Opioid Settlement


Four of the nation's largest health corporations, including Johnson & Johnson, have agreed to pay $26 billion for their role in America's deadly opioid epidemic. The landmark national settlement comes as overdose deaths are surging. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: When Tennessee state Attorney General Herbert Slatery announced the deal in a briefing with reporters Wednesday, he said it was urgent a settlement be reached that will help communities fast.


HERBERT SLATERY: 2020 was the deadliest year on record for opioid overdoses in Tennessee. This was a 44% increase. So the urgency of this problem continues. It's just relentless.

MANN: Under this agreement, Johnson & Johnson, a drug maker, as well as three big drug wholesalers - AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson - will pay $26 billion over the next 17 years, with the vast majority of the funds going to pay for drug treatment and recovery programs. There is one catch. Thousands of governments that sued these companies have just 150 days to agree to this deal. The way the settlement is structured, the more governments that opt in, the more cash the companies will have to pay.

Joe Rice is an attorney with Motley Rice, a firm that represents dozens of governments suing the drug industry over opioids. He supports this deal and told reporters yesterday a campaign will now begin to get government officials on board.


JOE RICE: So everyone has a common interest to work together to try to get maximum participation to have the maximum amount of funds available for abatement nationally.

MANN: One state attorney general, Patrick Morrisey of West Virginia, has already signaled he won't join the deal. Morrisey said in a statement to NPR the settlement allocates too much money based on population without factoring in which states were hit hardest by the opioid crisis.

Under this deal, the four companies admit no wrongdoing. In statements, the firms all said they acted properly in their opioid businesses. But if the agreement is finalized, it will ban Johnson & Johnson from making or marketing opioids for the next 10 years. It also creates a new national monitoring system designed to keep closer tabs on prescription opioid shipments.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein led negotiations with the companies.


JOSH STEIN: The distributors will fund an independent clearinghouse to identify red flags so they can take action when there's a pill mill or when a community is drowning in prescription opioids.

MANN: This deal resolves a big piece of corporate America's role in the opioid crisis, but a wave of lawsuits is still moving forward against other major companies that made or sold opioids, including pharmacy chains CVS, Walgreens and Walmart.

Brian Mann, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.