How to cover opioid lawsuits and settlement money

Taylor Knopf, a North Carolina health news reporter and moderator of the “Following the opioid settle money” panel session at Health Journalism 2022 in Austin.

Billions of dollars are soon to be rolling out in the states to settle thousands of lawsuits filed against opioid manufacturers, distributors and retailers.

Journalists will play an essential role in shedding light on whether the dollars will actually go towards addressing the opioid crisis, which killed an estimated 80,816 Americans in 2021, and more than 500,000 since 1999, according to CDC data. Overall drug overdose deaths were 107,622 in 2021, up 15% from 2020.

To help reporters cover this topic, Taylor Knopf, a North Carolina health news reporter, Shelly Weizman, a lawyer at the Georgetown University O’Neill Institute for National and Global Law center and Albie Park, an addiction counselor, offered resources and tips during a May 1 session at Health Journalism 2022 in Austin.

“If we are going to get this right with these opioid settlements, it’s going to take a great deal of accountability and transparency and staying on top of this,” said Weizman, who is also associate director of addiction and public policy initiative at the O’Neill Institute.

Earlier this year, the nation’s three largest drug distributors and a drug manufacturer agreed to pay $26 billion to settle thousands of state and local lawsuits, while Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, agreed to pay as much as $6 billion to settle lawsuits and emerge from bankruptcy protection. Other lawsuits are still pending, but money from the cases settled are expected to begin flowing in 2022.

Weizman and Park said their biggest concern was that most of the settlement money wouldn’t go to trying to address the opioid epidemic, but instead would end up in general state and local government coffers to be used for other things like roads and education. This is what happened with the settlement dollars from tobacco lawsuits settled in 1998. Most of the states spent very little of the money for smoking cessation and prevention programs.

So, getting up to speed on the thousands of lawsuit settlements and what is happening in your state will be key in coming months. Fortunately, Weizman, in her presentation provided a roadmap to understanding the legal process. The lawsuits, she says, can be thought of in terms of three buckets: the first is the multi-district litigation that brought together more than 3,000 state and local government lawsuits in a federal court in Ohio; the second is the state attorneys general cases and the third is civil enforcement and federal criminal prosecutions and malpractice suits brought against company executives and physicians.

In February 2022, the multidistrict suits and the attorneys general suits came together for a global settlement amount of $26 billion. But not all states, local entities and tribal communities agree with the settlement, so look into what is happening with your state and the lawsuits.

On a separate legal track is Purdue Pharma, which filed for bankruptcy and wasn’t subject to the multi-state and attorneys general suits. The company agreed to pay $6 billion to emerge from bankruptcy in exchange for absolving the company’s owners — the Sackler family — from legal liability.

Weizman’s organization is also tracking what is happening in the states, where some legislatures have proposed or passed bills to make clear where opioid settlement dollars should be allocated. Reporters should watch that the state isn’t just supplanting money from the opioid settlement and using it elsewhere rather than expanding addiction and prevention programs to stop the opioid epidemic.

“Keep a close eye on whether this is actually new money” being allocated to [opioid addiction and prevention] programs, Weizman said. Here organization has created a public policy model for states to use to build and expand drug addiction programs.

Park, who co-founded Harm Reduction Works and HRH413 urged reporters to look into whether opioid dollars will be allocated toward addiction programs that emphasize abstinence-only approaches, which don’t work for most people. A growing body of evidence is showing a combination of strategies, like providing medication and safe places for people to use drugs, is necessary to help people manage their addictions and reduce opioid overdose deaths.

“We have this abstinence-only narrative about recovery and treatment,” said Park. “That narrative only works for a small minority of people.”

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