MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
All right, attorneys representing hundreds of local governments around the country met this morning in Ohio. They unveiled a plan they hope will lead to a national settlement of lawsuits stemming from the opioid epidemic. Tens of billions of dollars are at stake. A lot of that money could go to helping people struggling with addiction, but big hurdles remain before the drug industry agrees to major payouts.
North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: The motion was filed in a federal court in Ohio by a team of attorneys who represent 1,200 counties, cities and towns that all say they need money to help respond to the opioid epidemic. One of those attorneys, Joe Rice, says they've been trying to reach a settlement with two dozen drugmakers and distributors that sold opioid medications. But during negotiations over the last year, companies haven't signed on.
JOE RICE: The defendants don't have a sense of how they get closure. How can they put this issue behind them? And with the whole country involved, it's a difficult question.
MANN: The problem, says Richard Ausness, a professor at the University of Kentucky who follows opioid litigation, is that if companies like Purdue Pharma and McKesson settle for billions of dollars with one group of towns and cities, they could still face other litigation. What the drug industry wants, he says, is a deal that brings closure.
RICHARD AUSNESS: Because obviously they don't want too many outliers suing them after they've settled with the majority. And this proposed settlement seems to anticipate that and try to provide for as much of a global settlement as is possible.
MANN: The plan unveiled today doesn't include the dollar amounts for a settlement or a formula for who would pay. Negotiations haven't gotten that far. What this plan does is lay out a deal where roughly 24,000 local governments would all be swept into a single group that could settle with drug companies together. Those communities would get to vote on any proposed payout. They could also opt out of the arrangements altogether. But attorney Joe Rice says he hopes for a lot of buy-in if this plan is approved by the court.
RICE: This is an attempt to bring a organizational load to the municipalities around the country in order they can speak with a voice.
MANN: This kind of closure and clarity could be an important bargaining chip because local governments hope for massive compensation, payouts that would rival the big tobacco settlements of the 1990s.
RICE: Tens of billions of dollars would be needed to make a significant - a real significant impact on this epidemic.
MANN: Attorneys for two of the drug companies involved in this lawsuit describe the proposal as interesting but preliminary. They said they haven't had time to work through the details of how it would work. Some companies are also still reluctant to admit wrongdoing. Johnson & Johnson is facing a state civil trial right now in Oklahoma, accused of improperly marketing opioid products. Earlier this year, Jennifer Taubert, CEO of Johnson & Johnson's Janssen division, testified before Congress, insisting the company isn't responsible for the prescription opioid epidemic.
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JENNIFER TAUBERT: Everything that we have done with our products when we promoted opioid products, which we stopped marketing a long time ago, was very appropriate and responsible.
MANN: Joe Rice, attorney with the plaintiffs group that filed the motion today, says he doesn't think this proposed settlement framework will resolve all opioid litigation against Big Pharma. But he does think it might allow companies or groups of companies to now come forward and cut a deal.
RICE: I think that the distributors could potentially all get on the same page. I think the manufacturers could potentially get on the same page.
MANN: The judge overseeing the consolidated federal opioid case in Ohio, Dan Polster, has been pushing for the parties to reach a settlement. So far, that's been elusive, but sources tell NPR the creation of this new framework was one of the steps the court asked for to help make a final deal possible. Brian Mann, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.