PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Settlements with opioid manufacturer Johnson & Johnson and three opioid distributors will bring in $114 million over the next two decades, all of which will be channeled back into opioid addiction treatment and prevention, Attorney General Peter Neronha announced Tuesday.
The settlement with pharmaceutical distributors McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen puts an end to the case brought by Rhode Island in June 2018. In joining the national settlement along with 45 other states, Rhode Island will receive $90.8 million to be used exclusively for “opioids abatement,” including treatment, prevention, overdose rescue and recovery, in the state. The first payments are expected in the coming weeks, Neronha said. Separate payments will cover litigation fees for the outside counsel that helped the attorney general’s office with the case.
“It’s been a bit of a tortured path,” Neronha said, citing hours of pre-litigation work and months of negotiations.
The settlement also includes agreements from the distributors to create systems for increased oversight. These include a red-flag system for suspicious orders, and requirements to report suspicious orders and blocked customers to the state and federal offices of the attorney general and department of health.
In addition to this most recent settlement, the state will collect funds from two settlements reached last year. One, against the consulting firm McKinsey will yield $2.5 million over the next five years. The state already used $1 million from this settlement to increase the provision of naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal medication also known by the brand-name Narcan. The original lawsuit against McKinsey alleged that the firm helped Purdue Pharma market opioids.
The other settlement from last year was with Johnson & Johnson, in a suit that alleged they manufactured, marketed and sold opioids while downplaying the risks of addiction, according to Neronha. That settlement will pay $21.1 million over the next 10 years, with the first round beginning in July.
All told, the three settlements will bring over $114 million to the state, all of which will go toward aiding those with opioid addiction and preventing further crisis.
“All these companies basically prioritized profits over safety,” Neronha said. “They knew the risks and they didn’t tell anybody.”
Rhode Island has struggled with opioid addiction for years, seeing a six percent increase in the number of fatal overdoses between 2016 and 2021. Three hundred and eighty-four people died from an opioid overdose in 2020, the highest year on record.
“We know that it impacts all different communities,” Governor Daniel McKee said. “This is a personal issue for families, a personal issue for communities. We’re certainly determined to use these funds to make a difference.”
All 39 Rhode Island cities and towns have agreed to use the funds recovered from the settlements to counter the opioid crisis. As part of the agreement, 20% of the money will go directly to cities and towns based on population, and 80% will be allocated to abatement programs by the state, which Neronha said will trickle down to cities and towns.
Neronha said part of the decision to settle the state’s litigation was to ensure the state gets the money sooner.
“The winners here, regardless of how the money gets to them, whether it be through the cities and towns or the state, are the people of Rhode Island,” Neronha said.
The state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services will oversee the portion of the settlement being allocation to programs throughout the state, which will be informed by a new Advisory Committee. Although the allocations are subject to the General Assembly’s appropriations process, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-Providence, said lawmakers will begin looking at the issue this year.
“We need to attack this epidemic from multiple angles,” said House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi, D-Warwick.
The settlement funds may help bolster steps the state has already taken to counter the opioid addiction epidemic, such as the establishment of harm reduction centers or safe-injection sites, where people can inject dangerous substances under the supervision of healthcare professionals. Legislation signed in July 2021 made Rhode Island the first state in the U.S. to authorize safe-injection sites, though New York became the first state to actually open one in November.
“Controversial? Yes. Unanimous? Absolutely not. Been in the General Assembly for years, but we needed it, and we got it done,” Shekarchi said. “We look forward to seeing those centers up and operating and preventing, and treating people who need it.”
McKee also hailed the Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Act of 2016, which protects people who seek medical assistance for an overdose from being charged with any drug-related crimes.
Neronha said his work on the 2011 case against Google — which alleged the search engine was allowing Canadian pharmaceutical companies to advertise prescription drugs to Google-users in the U.S. who were obtaining them without a valid prescription — informed his negotiations on these recent settlements.
“There was this time period in our country when opioids were simply handed out like candy. Doctors were prescribing them, pharmacies were filling them, distributors were distributing them. If you looked at the data, you could see problems and nothing was done about it,” Neronha said. “Frankly, it’s one of my regrets with respect to the Google settlement that we achieved over a decade ago; that money could not be used for opioid abatement.”
Rhode Island still has pending cases against Purdue Pharma, which are on hold while the company undergoes bankruptcy proceedings in New York, and eight members of the Sackler family, which owns and operates Purdue Pharma. A jury trial against the Israeli company Teva for their role in manufacturing, marketing and selling generic opioids is scheduled to begin in March.