Native American tribes agree to $590M settlement with Johnson & Johnson, drug distributors over opioid epidemic

(NEW YORK) — Johnson & Johnson and the nation’s three largest drug distributors agreed Tuesday to settle opioids-related claims by Native American tribes for nearly $600 million.

The settlement, announced in a filing with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, is tentative until hundreds of tribes sign on, which is expected.

“The Native American population has suffered some of the worst consequences of the opioid epidemic of any population in the United States. Indeed, American Indians have suffered the highest per capita rate of opioid overdoses,” the tribal leadership committee said in a statement filed with the court. “American Indians and Alaska Natives had the highest drug overdose death rates in 2015 and the largest percentage increase in the number of deaths over time from 1999-2015 compared to other racial and ethnic groups.”

Johnson & Johnson agreed to pay $150 million over the next two years while not admitting liability or wrongdoing. The company defended its promotion of the medications.

“The Company’s actions relating to the marketing and promotion of important prescription opioid medications were appropriate and responsible,” Johnson & Johnson said in a statement. “DURAGESIC®, NUCYNTA® and NUCYNTA® ER accounted for less than one percent of total opioid prescriptions in the U.S. since launch. The Company no longer sells prescription opioid medications in the United States as part of our ongoing efforts to focus on transformational innovation and serving unmet patient needs.”

The drug distributors — AmerisourceBergen Corp., McKesson Corp., and Cardinal Health, Inc. — agreed to pay $440 million over the next seven years.

The tribal leadership committee said the money would help offset the “considerable” funds tribes have had to spend to cover the costs of the opioid crisis.

“The burden of paying these increased costs has diverted scarce tribal funds from other needs and has imposed severe financial burdens on the Tribal Plaintiffs, which will continue to bear significant costs related to abatement of the opioid addiction problem in their communities,” the tribal leadership committee said in its statement.

“This is a monumentally historic settlement that goes a small but very important distance toward addressing a killing epidemic that devastated tribal communities,” said Lloyd Miller, one of the lead tribal attorneys.

“Tribes are sovereign governments and must be able to vindicate their own interests to protect the health and welfare of their tribal communities,” Miller added.

The settlement puts Native American tribes on equal footing with states and cities as they try to abate the opioid crisis.

“The tribes have established in this case that they can play a major litigation role along with the state and local governments,” fellow tribal attorney Steve Skikos said. “The focus should be on the tribes themselves and how this settlement can help continue their efforts to address the opioid crisis.”

Tuesday’s result is different than Big Tobacco litigation, in which tribes were relegated to the sidelines and given only a share of what states received to address the consequences of tobacco and nicotine.

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