Note to President Trump and Democratic hopefuls: We can’t depend on a windfall legal settlement to combat the opioid epidemic
The opioid epidemic continues to ravage the nation virtually unabated. While a handful of cities and states have managed to reduce overdose deaths, fatalities have spiked in others, and the overall outlook remains bleak. The Centers for Disease Control forecasts a near-record 69,000 drug-related deaths in 2019. Of those, 7 out of 10 will be from opioids—bringing the total number of deaths due to opioids to roughly 400,000 since 1999. Nevertheless, this public health crisis—arguably the worst in American history—still receives scant attention from politicians, even as the 2020 presidential race shifts into high gear.
Attention has instead moved to the complex opioid litigation unfolding across the country. There is widespread hope for a so-called “global settlement” of more than 2,500 cases brought by virtually every state—as well as individual cities and counties—that will provide a massive funding windfall to be used to combat the epidemic.
So far, however, the tangle of court cases, appeals and legal squabbling has led to only a few relatively small lump-sum awards. Among them are a $260 million settlement between four drug companies and two Ohio counties, and a damage award of $465 million to be paid by Johnson & Johnson to the state of Oklahoma. Purdue Pharma is negotiating a settlement of between $10 billion to $12 billion. Other lawsuits are due to go to trial in the coming year.
Those being sued—the opioid makers, drug distributors and pharmacy chains—should without question be held accountable for the more than 76 billion prescription painkillers poured into American communities between 2006 and 2012. They must be made to pay for the misery they’ve inflicted, The question, though, is how much funding—and when—will eventually be made available as a result of these lawsuits to help those who lack access to drug treatment and other services so desperately needed and in short supply.
A legal settlement would not be a cure-all for this devastating epidemic. Meanwhile, the federal government, which has shown a disappointing lack of leadership, must take action now. It should start by allocating $100 billion over the next decade—a plan advocated by Democratic candidates Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar—to create a strong, effective drug treatment response, including long-term residential care for the most vulnerable addicts. Should settlement money be available in the future, it could be integrated into a broader government effort—if we have one at that point.
We have the capacity, knowledge and resources to fight this epidemic—and to win. But under the Trump administration, Congress has authorized only $6 billion for worthwhile initiatives such as expanding medication-assisted treatment (MAT), increasing availability of overdose-reversal drugs, and making prescription drug monitoring significantly stronger. That is all just a start, and not nearly sufficient given the magnitude of this ongoing crisis, which should be a top priority on every presidential candidate’s policy agenda.