Whether ultimately resolved in court or by settlement, any funds received by state, local and tribal governments across the nation in compensation for the nation’s opioid epidemic won’t come close to making anyone whole, to setting things right.
Not after some $500 billion has been spent by U.S. taxpayers in costs for law enforcement and emergency medical responses, hospital care, homelessness, orphaned children and lost productivity. Nor can anything bring back some 200,000 lives lost since 2000 to prescription opioid overdoses and another 200,000 deaths from abuse of heroin and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.
There is no windfall to be won.
But whatever money is made available can help continue a nationwide response to the opioid epidemic that is saving lives and helping those with addiction illnesses get treatment and services that can set those lives right.
All of which leaves the state and local governments now seeking compensation from prescription drug producers and distributors with an important and difficult choice: settle for what’s recently been offered or push on with lawsuits. It’s a calculus complicated by the uncertainty over what’s being offered against the knowledge of what’s needed.
The offer: The tentative settlement announced last week with Purdue Pharma in a landmark lawsuit in federal court by 23 states and more than 2,000 cities, counties and tribal governments — including the City of Everett, Snohomish County and the Tulalip Tribes — would deliver between $10 billion and $12 billion over a period of years.
Under terms of the settlement, Purdue’s owners, the Sackler family, would take the company into bankruptcy, liquidating its assets, and remake Purdue as a trust that would continue to develop and produce medicines specific to fighting opioid addiction. The Sacklers would be responsible for turning over $3 billion for the settlement’s compensation. In return, Purdue and the Sacklers would not have to admit wrongdoing for their part in the opioid crisis.
The executive committee of plaintiffs’ attorneys is advising its clients to accept the offer, although some states’ attorneys general — including Washington’s Bob Ferguson and Oregon’s Ellen Rosenblum — are opposed to the settlement deal.
Deal or no deal: Because a gag order has been imposed by the judge in the case, you won’t hear “deal” or “no deal” from Everett, Snohomish County or Tulalip officials until after a final decision is made.
There are justifications for both arguments.
Some states’ attorneys general have advised that this is the best deal available. Purdue and the Sacklers have warned that they could declare bankruptcy absent a settlement, dragging out any payment of funds to communities following a court verdict. And there’s no question of the immediate need for funds needed to address the crisis.
Yet, as Ferguson and Rosenblum advised, there are reasons to reject the deal.
“Importantly, Purdue’s valuation of the reported settlement does not come close to matching ours,” Ferguson said in a statement on Twitter. “In addition, this purported settlement does not include an apology to the families and communities devastated by Purdue and the Sacklers’ conduct.”
While Ferguson has withdrawn Washington state from the federal lawsuit, he is pursuing the state’s own lawsuit against Purdue in King County Superior Court.
In Oregon’s lawsuit, court documents note that the Sackler family, between 2008 and 2018 — and following a 2007 federal conviction of Purdue and three executives and a $635 million fine for discounting the highly addictive nature of OxyContin to doctors — appeared to anticipate future lawsuits. The Sacklers instructed Purdue Pharma to redirect about $11 billion of the company’s assets to partnered companies, foreign holdings and trusts benefiting the Sackler family, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported Wednesday.
That draining of funds — in addition to enriching the Sackler family — also casts doubt on Purdue’s ability after bankruptcy to be able to invest in the research and development necessary for the medications it has promised in the settlement to assist in confronting opioid addiction.
The need here: The necessity for an allocation of money in Snohomish County — from court verdict or settlement — is clear. Last week the Snohomish Health District and its Snohomish Overdose Prevention program released the third in its annual seven-day “snapshots” of the opioid crisis in the county.
Between July 8 and 14 this year, a total of 27 opioid overdoses — prescription and illegal opioids — were reported. Two people died. This year’s count showed a decrease in overdoses from the 2018 report, when 57 overdoses were reported, but again with two deaths. Three fatalities were reported in 2017, involving 37 overdoses.
In 2018, data from the state Department of Health showed a total of 125 opioid overdose deaths in Snohomish County.
The snapshots are just that, a point-in-time measurement of the crisis in the county, with the intention of providing some context to a public health crisis that can help direct responses and resources. One statistic in particular shows the usefulness of that data.
Both this year and in 2018, of the overdoses reported, 3 out of 4 were successfully reversed using naloxone, also known as Narcan, saving lives that otherwise might have been lost, up from about 2 in 3 overdoses in 2017. The increased survival rate is credited from better availability — and community training by health professionals in its use — among the general public.
The snapshots also provided the revelation, reported last week by The Herald’s Noah Haglund, that more than half the overdoses are not occurring on the street among the homeless but among those with stable housing. Twelve overdoses occurred in homes; three in hotel-motels; five in cars; four in homeless encampments and three in public.
County and city law enforcement and other public officials also say they are seeing success, in particular through police patrols with embedded social workers, in persuading those with addictions to agree to treatment.
More funding can help deliver the services that save lives.
The difficult question before local officials now as they look at the need and resources available: Take the assurance of some money sooner, or press on for a shot at more money — and more justice — later.