Butler County jurisdictions settle more opioid lawsuits

Oxycodone pills in New York, May 12, 2016. According to federal data, the opioid crisis has claimed more than 500,000 lives, and the problem has only continued to swell during the pandemic. (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)
Caption
Oxycodone pills in New York, May 12, 2016. According to federal data, the opioid crisis has claimed more than 500,000 lives, and the problem has only continued to swell during the pandemic. (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Coroner’s office statistics show opioid deaths aren’t waning

The Butler County commissioners have approved an estimated $1.2 million settlement over nine years with Johnson & Johnson in the national opioid litigation, and other jurisdictions are sealing deals of their own.

The county and nearly every other local jurisdiction have signed onto Attorney General Dave Yost’s OneOhio settlement program with the major distributors. The J&J settlement is part of national litigation but is being handled under the same format as the OneOhio settlement the county and others ratified in August.

Three major drugmakers, including J&J, were accused of not having strong enough control over the addictive drugs they make and how they made their way to illegal distribution channels. The settlements go to communities that experienced devastation because of opioid abuse and deaths.

Chief Assistant Prosecutor Dan Ferguson said Butler County will receive between $875,190 and $1.25 million directly over nine years from J&J and has access to a larger pool of $8.8 million to $12.5 million, as part of a regional group of seven counties that will decide future funding distributions. Exact totals depend on the number of jurisdictions that approve the settlement.

“The commissioners at this point on that particular deal don’t have any choice, because to not participate in the OneOhio settlement would involve going on their own and litigating against J&J,” Ferguson said. “The cost of which would be unmanageable.”

The other jurisdictions are part of the J&J settlement as well but Fairfield appears to be the only jurisdiction other than the county that has been notified how much it can expect. Finance Director Jake Burton said they are slated to receive $94,192 to $134,560.

Under the OneOhio deal, the county will receive between $3.8 million and $5.4 million directly over 18 years and has access to a share in $38 million to $54.4 million more. The county’s share is part of a nationwide $26 billion settlement brokered by state attorneys general — with the three largest opioid distributors Cardinal, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen. Ohio’s share was $808 million.

Nearly 4,000 jurisdictions nationwide filed lawsuits in state and federal courts years ago when the heroin epidemic was killing their residents, and budgets trying to deal with the pervasive problem. The commissioners sued 20 drug makers and distributors in federal court in 2017, they sought $5 million in that lawsuit, which is now part of the multidistrict litigation ongoing in the Cleveland federal court.

Ferguson said the three distributors and J&J are now “peeled out” of that litigation.

Ferguson said previously the long pay-out periods in the settlements were by design and for the greater good.

“These are not lump sums that get dropped into anybody’s bank account, they’re time payments,” Ferguson said. “Part of the object of doing the time-payments, I think part of the courts’ object is they don’t really want to see these drug distributors run into bankruptcy, because frankly, society needs many of the products they make and distribute.”

ExploreButler County could get more than $5 million in huge opioid settlement

County Administrator Judi Boyko said it will be a while before the county actually sees the money, annually the J&J settlement will funnel $97,243 to $138,919 into county coffers, but there are restrictions on how the money can be spent. Generally, she said the money must be used to “abate and prevent any further opioid impact.”

“It’s premature to establish a defined scope of how the money will be applied in Butler County,” Boyko said. “Although the commissioners have not provided any direction to me I anticipate the board will clearly articulate what stakeholders will participate.”

While the coronavirus pandemic has been front and center lately, the county coroner’s office statistics show opioid deaths aren’t waning. There have been 151 suspected or confirmed drug overdose deaths as of Oct. 31. There were 177 last year, up from 159 the previous year. The five-year-high came in 2017 when 232 people died.

The countywide total in the distributor litigation — if everyone gets 100% of the expected allotment — is about a quarter of early estimates or $10.5 million over 18 years. Early on in the settlement talks with the distributors, the state estimated all jurisdictions in the county would share in $47.5 million with the county receiving the lion’s share at $24.4 million.

Scott Rasmus, executive director of the Butler County Mental Health and Addiction Recovery Services Board, told the Journal-News any amount of funding is welcome. He is in the process of putting a request for proposals for an emergency mental health crisis stabilization center — drugs are often contributing factors in emergency situations — and funds could be used to help create and sustain that unit. There are other areas to be addressed as well.

“We want to expand recovery housing in Butler County, there’s a need for that. Substance abuse prevention services that can be targeted for youth and others especially in school settings, those are three things right off the tip of my head,” Rasmus said. “Any amount of money we can we can definitely utilize and target pretty readily to address addiction issues currently and moving forward into the future.”

The Ohio settlement distribution numbers were formulated using the National Opiates Litigation model, according to Bethany McCorkle, Yost’s communications director. The calculation includes the number of opioid-involved deaths, the number of opioids shipped to a county and the number of opioid addicts.

Hamilton and Middletown were the hardest hit areas during the opioid epidemic, Hamilton’s share of the first settlement was $953,798 to $1.36 million and Middletown is expected to receive between $821,580 and $1.17 million over 18-years. The two largest townships received considerably less with a Liberty Twp. allotment of $162,076 to $231,537 and West Chester Twp. $526,964 to $752,806.

“While this settlement in no way makes our city whole again, it does help provide additional assistance to our community in the continued fight of addiction,” Middletown City Manager Jim Palenick said when they learned of the award.

None of the jurisdictions appear to have started discussing how they will utilize the funding. Burton said Fairfield’s first settlement ranged from $408,038 and $582,912 and they have only discussed the restrictions on the funding.

“Most of the money will be restricted in use and specifically earmarked for abatement of the opioid epidemic,” Burton said. “The list of pre-approved uses includes a wide range of intervention, treatment, education, and recovery services allowing each entity to decide what will best serve their community.”

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