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Colorado joins historic $26 billion settlement with drug giants to address opioid crisis

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser on Wednesday unveiled a historic $26 billion multistate settlement with the nation’s three largest drug distribution companies and the drugmaker Johnson & Johnson designed to address the nationwide opioid addiction and overdose crisis.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Weiser said during a virtual news conference Wednesday afternoon. “We need to make the most of it.”

The settlement between more than 40 states, thousands of municipalities and AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, McKesson and Johnson & Johnson would bring $300 million to Colorado, the attorney general said.

That, combined with a previous settlement with Purdue Pharma, would total $400 million in funding to address what Weiser called an “American tragedy.”

“This has not occurred in other nations,” the attorney general said. “And it has its roots in the boardroom.”

Under the deal, Johnson & Johnson would not produce any opioids for at least a decade, and would stop lobbying activities related to opioids. And AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson would have to share prescribing information under a new system intended to stop the avalanches of pills that arrived in some regions about a decade ago.

Colorado’s funding from the settlement — which is still dependent on a critical mass of local municipalities signing up — would be distributed through a bottom-up approach, Weiser said.

“Each region will have to decide what mix of priorities makes sense for them,” he said.

The money could reach Colorado communities in the next year, with annual payments from the drug companies occurring over 18 years. The money would have to be spent on addiction and treatment-related programs.

As it stands now, Colorado can only meet about 30% of its drug treatment needs, Weiser said, noting a compelling need for addiction services in every corner of the state.

“Many people are suffering,” he said. “We are at a potentially transformative moment.”

Over the last 20 years, more than 7,600 Coloradans died from accidental opioid overdoses, state data shows.

Johnson & Johnson said it will contribute up to $5 billion to the national settlement, while the other companies will add $21 billion.

While many states celebrated the agreement, not all plan to accept the deal.

“The settlement is, to be blunt, not nearly good enough for Washington,” Bob Ferguson, Washington’s attorney general, said in a statement released Wednesday afternoon. “It stretches woefully insufficient funds into small payments over nearly 20 years, to be shared among more than 300 Washington jurisdictions.”

An Associated Press tally finds there have been at least $40 billion in completed or proposed settlements, penalties and fines between governments and the makers of opioids since 2007, not including one between the federal government and OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma in which most of the $8.3 billion would be waived. Purdue is trying to reach a deal through bankruptcy court that could be worth $10 billion over time; a hearing on that plan is scheduled for August.

Other deals are possible. While a growing number of companies in the industry have struck deals, some manufacturers have not — and no pharmacy companies have struck nationwide settlements.

But the total amount in the settlements is far below estimates of the financial costs of the epidemic. The Society of Actuaries found that the cost of the crisis in the U.S. was $630 billion from 2015 through 2018, with most of the costs borne by the private sector. And the White House Council of Economic Advisers, when considering the economic impact of people who fatally overdosed, put the one-year cost at about $500 billion nationally.

Unlike with the tobacco settlements reached in the 1990s, governments have agreed to spend money they bring in from opioid-related settlements to deal with the opioid crisis.

An Associated Press analysis of federal distribution data found that enough prescription opioids were shipped in 2012 for every person in the U.S. to have a 20-day supply.

And opioids — including both prescription drugs and illegal ones like heroin and illicitly produced fentanyl — have been linked to more than 500,000 deaths in the U.S. since 2000. The number of cases reached a record high of 93,000 in 2020.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.