The payback bill keeps getting bigger for the pharmaceutical companies some say had a heavy hand in causing the nation’s opioid crisis. Big pharma companies like Johnson & Johnson have been hit by crashing waves of lawsuits in recent years, accused of deceptively encouraging doctors to prescribe narcotics for chronic pain patients.
Last week, Johnson & Johnson agreed to add a billion dollars to an opioid settlement that includes plaintiffs from North Texas. It brings the total to $5 billion.
Johnson & Johnson’s billions are their contribution to an all-in settlement deal between four states — Texas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Pennsylvania — and four other companies. As the settlement stands, companies Johnson & Johnson, Cardinal Health, McKesson, AmerisourceBergen and Teva will have to cough up $22 billion in cash in addition to $26 billion worth of generic opioid addiction treatment, product distribution and data tracking measures.
The terms of the settlement have not been made final, but with the money, states will also be able to provide paramedic services and telehealth treatment.
The Dallas law firm Fears Nachawati is representing the plaintiffs. “The settlement is an indication that numerous other lawsuits filed across the U.S. could be moving toward resolution,” Matthew McCarley, a partner at the firm, said.
The firm represents several cities, counties and local governments in opioid litigation in Texas and across the country.
Johnson & Johnson did not respond for comment, but in a statement about the settlement increase on their website, they said: “The settlement is not an admission of liability or wrongdoing, and the Company will continue to defend against any litigation that the final agreement does not resolve. The settlement will provide certainty for involved parties and critical assistance for families and communities in need.”
This settlement agreement is part of the state’s Texas-sized beef with pharmaceutical companies that allegedly fueled the opioid crisis.
In 2017, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and 40 other states served investigative subpoenas and additional requests on several companies that make or distribute highly addictive painkillers.
The next year, Paxton filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, the company that makes OxyContin, for allegedly misrepresenting the drug's risks, the potential for addiction and appropriate dosage schedules.
"As Purdue got rich from sales of its opioids, Texans and others across the nation were swept up in a public health crisis that led to tens of thousands of deaths each year due to opioid overdoses,” Paxton said at the time.
In September last year, one week after Johnson & Johnson was told to hand over $572 million to the state of Oklahoma in the first opioid crisis-related settlement in the country, Paxton filed a Medicaid fraud lawsuit against the company for allegedly misleading doctors about the addiction risks of the Duragesic opioid pain patch.
But, it wasn’t until May this year that Paxton agreed with a group of Texas cities and counties that had been hit hard by the opioid epidemic to provide structure to any future settlements with manufacturers, distributors and retailers that played a role in drowning communities with prescription painkillers.
The agreement ensured settlement funds actually make it to where they needed to go to help those affected by the crisis.
“These cities and counties have learned from the mistakes of the Big Tobacco settlement in the 1990s, where funds intended for communities disappeared in the state's coffers," McCarley said in a press release at the time. "It is critically important that a structure is in place before a settlement is approved to make sure that funds reach these communities to provide critical relief on the ground.”
As part of the May agreement, state and local governments will each receive 15 percent of any settlement, 70 percent will be administered by the Texas Opioid Council to regional healthcare partnerships with treatment programs across the state.
Overdoses from the use of commonly prescribed opioids have been on a steady upward trend since 1999, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Around the late ’90s, only patients with cancer or who were recovering from surgery were regularly prescribed opioids. But then pharmaceutical companies started sending credentialed doctors known as “key opinion leaders” to discuss drugs' benefits and downplay their addictiveness with doctors who treat chronic pain.
More than half of all drug overdose deaths are attributable to opioids, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
The same week Johnson & Johnson announced its plans to add another $1 billion to the settlement, Mallinckrodt (MNK), the largest generic opioid manufacturer in the U.S., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy as a result of numerous lawsuits. The Lone Star State was also involved in litigation with MNK.
In a statement released last week about the ongoing litigation with MNK, Paxton said: “My office has been aggressively working to hold opioid manufacturers accountable for their deceptive marketing of highly addictive pain pills, which spurred an epidemic and left victims and families with unimaginable consequences. My office will continue to do everything it can to protect Texans and help our state heal from this crisis.”
McCarley said that while the announcement of extra money from Johnson & Johnson is a good sign and a step in the right direction, there is still so much work to be done. He said that even if all four pharma companies agreed to settle, there are still other manufacturing and national chain pharmacy defendants involved in this litigation.
“We’ll continue to fight on until we get a resolution,” McCarley said.
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