(The Center Square) – Washington is saying "no" to a $527 million settlement with drug distributors blamed for the nation's opioid crisis, alleging the total costs are far higher.
The settlement stems from a lawsuit filed in 2019 by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson against three opioid distributors: McKesson, Amerisource Bergen and Cardinal Health. He alleges the trio transported billions of dollars worth of oxycodone, fentanyl, hydrocodone and other prescription opioids into the state without following federal regulations. Ferguson sued pharmaceutical player Johnson & Johnson in January 2020 on similar grounds.
Under federal law, opioid distributors must monitor the number and frequency of orders to root out suspicious clients who could be tied to the illicit drug market. The three Fortune 500 companies have faced fines from the Drug Enforcement Administration for failing to report suspicious opioid shipments. Ferguson's office estimated such orders in Washington may have totaled a million between 2006 and 2014.
From 1997 to 2011, prescriptions and sales of opioids in Washington skyrocketed more than 500%, according to the Washington Department of Health. Sales peaked to more than 112 million doses in 2011 – or enough for a 16-day supply for every Washingtonian. In 2015, eight counties saw more prescriptions filed than people, with nearly 1.5 prescriptions per person. From 2006 to 2017, the death toll from opioid overdoses reached more than 8,000 people – or more deaths than from car accidents or guns.
Nationwide, the opioid crisis was responsible for some 70,000 deaths in 2019, according to U.S. Health and Human Services. Some 1.6 million drug disorders are attributed to the drug.
McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen stand accused of violating the state's Consumer Protection Act by fulfilling suspicious orders in Washington without adequately identifying them or reporting them. Ferguson also is accusing Johnson & Johnson, which supplies much of the materials used to produce opioid pain medications, of mischaracterizing opioids' addictive qualities to doctors who prescribed them to patients over the years.
All four companies agreed to a national settlement with all 50 states. Washington is joining a number of states calling foul.
A November 2017 report by the Council of Economic Advisers projected the costs to the state totaled $34 billion between 2012 and 2016. Washington was set to pocket $527.5 million over 18 years on the condition all of its 320 cities and 39 counties join the lawsuit. That figure is not adjusted for inflation. Ferguson said the deal was not good enough for Washington.
"It stretches woefully insufficient funds into small payments over nearly 20 years, to be shared among more than 300 Washington jurisdictions," Ferguson said. "Washington families devastated by the opioid epidemic deserve their day in court. We intend to give it to them."
By contrast, Oklahoma won a $574 million verdict against Johnson & Johnson in 2019. Per the terms of the settlement, that money will be paid out immediately, not in annual installments. Late payments will carry interest.
Washington's court date with McKesson, Cardinal Health and Amerisource Bergen in King County Superior Court is Sept. 7. Ferguson is set to fight Johnson & Johnson in King County Superior Court in January 2022.