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3 Major Drug Distributors Reportedly Negotiating $18B Opioid Settlement

Judge Thad Balkman holds a hearing Tuesday on his final judgment in the opioid lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson by the state of Oklahoma.
Judge Thad Balkman holds a hearing Tuesday on his final judgment in the opioid lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson by the state of Oklahoma.

Three major U.S. drug distributing companies are negotiating a multibillion-dollar settlement to end numerous lawsuits filed by state and local governments seeking compensation for costs associated with the opioid crisis.

The drug distributors — Amerisource Bergen, McKesson and Cardinal Health — could pay as much as $18 billion over 18 years, according to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the discussions.

Word of a possible settlement comes as the three companies and three others — drugmaker Teva Pharmaceutical, Walgreens and a small distributor called Henry Schein — are set to go to court next week in a landmark trial in Ohio.

With over 2,000 lawsuits filed across the country by governments and tens of billions of dollars at stake, details of a possible settlement are scant. As North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reported:

"A source tells NPR the drug distributors Amerisource Bergen and McKesson have reached a tentative settlement with at least some state attorneys general, as has the drugmaker Teva. The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, is reporting McKesson, Amerisource Bergen and Cardinal Health have reached a tentative national settlement. ... It remains unclear how these last-minute settlements might affect a federal trial set to begin Monday in Ohio."

That trial will be presided over by U.S. District Judge Dan Polster, who has been urging the parties to settle.

In another legal development, a state judge in Oklahoma, Thad Balkman, is acknowledging a $107 million error in a recent verdict assigning responsibility for that state's opioid epidemic that has claimed more than 4,000 lives from 2007 to 2017.

In August, Balkman ruled that drugmaker Johnson & Johnson should pay $572 million for contributing to Oklahoma's opioid crisis after the state sued for $17 billion.

But the judge said his ruling included $107.6 million for addiction costs when he meant to order a penalty of $107,600.

KGOU's Jackie Fortier reported:

"His announcement could mean the judgment will be cut. But it's unclear how much Johnson & Johnson will ultimately have to pay Oklahoma — the judge will rule on other legal objections to his verdict at a later date."

A new study by the Society of Actuaries estimates that the opioid epidemic has cost the U.S. economy about $631 billion over the past four years. The study finds that the unrealized lifetime earnings of those who died prematurely because of drug overdoses and health care costs associated with opioid use were the biggest drivers of the economic drag created by the opioid crisis.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 16, 2019 at 9:00 PM PDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly gave U.S. District Judge Dan Polster's last name as Posner.
Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.