Pharma giants to pay Native Americans $590 million for opioids

A group of pharmaceutical companies and distributors have agreed to pay $590 million to settle lawsuits related to opioid addiction among Native American tribes, according to a US court filing released Tuesday.

The deal is the latest amid a deluge of litigation sparked by the US opioid crisis, which has claimed more than 500,000 lives over the past 20 years and ensnared some of the biggest companies of American medicine.

Companies involved in the latest deal include Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and McKesson, according to a filing in federal court in Ohio by a panel of plaintiffs in the case.

Native Americans have “suffered some of the worst consequences of the opioid epidemic of any population in the United States,” including the highest per capita rate of opioid overdoses compared to other racial groups, according to the file of the tribal steering committee.

“The burden of paying these increased costs has diverted scarce funds from other needs and placed heavy financial burdens on tribal claimants.”

J&J, McKesson and the other two companies in the deal — AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health — previously agreed to a $26 billion global settlement of opioid cases.

J&J said Tuesday that the $150 million it agreed to pay in the Native American case was deducted from what it owed in the global settlement.

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

It was unclear whether the other companies would take their cut under the latest global settlement agreement.

“Justice Measure”

Robins Kaplan, a law firm negotiating on behalf of the plaintiffs, said the deal still needs to be approved by Native American tribes.

“This initial settlement for the Tribes in the National Opioid Litigation is a critical first step in bringing justice to the Tribes and reservation communities across the United States who have been ground zero for the opioid epidemic,” Farm lawyer Tara Sutton said in a statement.

Douglas Yankton, president of the North Dakota-based Spirit Lake Nation, said the settlement money would “help fund crucial, reservation-based, culturally appropriate opioid treatment services.”

Steven Skikos, a lawyer representing the tribes, told AFP they were pursuing lawsuits against other drugmakers.

“These are hopefully the first two of many other settlements,” he said.

All tribes recognized by the US government, 574 in total, will be able to participate in the agreement, even if they have not filed a complaint.

The settlement is separate from an earlier agreement that resulted in $75 million in payments to the Cherokee Nation from three distribution companies, including McKesson.

Many lawsuits over the opioid crisis have focused on Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, a highly addictive prescription painkiller accused of causing an increase in addiction.

In December, a judge struck down the company’s bankruptcy plan because it offered some immunity to the company’s owners in exchange for a $4.5 billion payout to victims of the opioid crisis.

The wave of litigation has also overwhelmed pharmacies owned by Walmart, Walgreens and CVS, which a jury in November found responsible for the opioid crisis in two Ohio counties.

Nohemi M. Moore