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Deadline approaches for Conn. towns and cities to sign on to national $26B opioid settlement

Joe Amon
Connecticut Public/NENC
Money from the settlement could help Connecticut municipalities pay for harm reduction and other services related to responses to the opioid epidemic.

A majority of Connecticut cities and towns have signed on to a national settlement deal with drug makers and distributors that would bring millions of dollars into the state for addiction treatment and prevention.

But a small few are holding out as the Jan. 2 deadline approaches, and state and local leaders are urging them to sign.

“Just this morning, I was on the phone with a small-town leader and said, look, you’ve had this issue in your town, and I don’t think you want to be one of the few towns left that hasn’t signed up,” Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary said Dec. 20 at City Hall.

Drug distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson, as well as pharmaceutical manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, announced in July that they would collectively pay out $26 billion to settle thousands of civil lawsuits against the companies for their roles in the national opioid addiction epidemic.

Attorney General William Tong, who was involved in the settlement negotiations, said Connecticut stands to bring in a total of $300 million, a majority to be paid out over 18 years.

In order to receive the funds, towns and cities need to officially agree to the deal. O’Leary and other officials have been working to persade 12 Connecticut municipalities that have yet to do so.

“You may think, ‘Wow, who wouldn’t sign up,’ right?” he said. “Because there’s not a city or town in Connecticut that has not been impacted by this opioid crisis. There just isn’t.”

O’Leary said some of it comes down to a lack of understanding about what the settlement requires. He has also heard town leaders say they do not want to be “mandated to do anything.”

“That is a little bit discouraging to me, because the truth is, all they need to do is to register and sign up,” O’Leary said. “There is no mandate.”

The national deal stipulates that if states get 95% or more of their towns and cities to sign on, they are more likely to receive the maximum awards allowed under the settlement.

As of Dec. 20, Connecticut’s participation stands at 93%.

“I know there are some new leaders that just came in with the new election, and it’s important for them if they need a lot of information, they should reach out,” said Wolcott Mayor Tom Dunn. “It’s so important that they do not put this on the back of their desk. They need this to be on the top pile.”

The national deal is one of the largest settlements involving efforts by individuals, states and towns to hold drug makers accountable for making opioid painkillers more accessible, even as they became linked to addiction and overdose deaths.

Overdose deaths have been steadily climbing in Connecticut — almost 1,250 people have died this year as of early November, according to the latest state data. That number is expected to be higher by year’s end.

A majority of cases involved fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

“We have been focused over the last year and a half on beating COVID,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy. “But the opioid crisis didn’t go away just because COVID dominated the headlines, and still dominates the headlines. It is here and it is worse than ever, and it has been exacerbated by COVID.”

There has been some success with current programs and services that help people get into treatment and recovery, especially when organizations coordinate that care with city departments and agencies, said Robert Lambert. He is president and CEO of Connecticut Counseling Centers, a nonprofit that offers addiction treatment, harm reduction and recovery services in Waterbury, Danbury, Norwalk, Meriden and Stamford.

“But the problem is, I think that we’re only scratching the surface,” Lambert said. “And these programs are expensive, but they work and they need to be expanded on.”

Local leaders say the funds could be used to expand medication-assisted treatment options; purchase naloxone, the opioid reversal medication, and other harm reduction tools like fentanyl testing strips and clean needles; hire more workers and specialists in the field; and boost wraparound services like housing, food, transportation, employment, general health and more.

“I think that we’re going in the right direction,” Lambert said, “but I think, as a whole, Connecticut needs to do a better job building on those initial pilot successes and creating a seamless system.”

City and state leaders hope the $26 billion settlement is just the beginning of more to come.

Tong and other state attorneys general claimed victory earlier this month when a U.S. District Court judge overturned a bankruptcy settlement plan with Purdue Pharma, the Stamford-based maker of OxyContin.

The deal would have required the drug maker to pay out more than $4 billion to settle thousands of lawsuits against the company. But it would have also allowed individual members of the Sackler family, company owners, to be free of any personal lawsuits against them.

The judge determined that because the Sacklers were not seeking bankruptcy protection for themselves, but for the company, the bankruptcy deal could not grant them immunity from personal liability.

“I was confident on the law,” Tong said last week, “and confident that we’re right about this, that the Sacklers need to be held accountable, that the proposed bankruptcy plan was not, is not just, and the Sacklers need to do more.”

States and individuals can now move forward with their claims. In a statement, Purdue executives said they plan to appeal the judge’s latest decision.

Murphy said the personal liability shield in the Purdue case is what made that settlement different, and unacceptable, compared to the settlement deal with Johnson & Johnson and the drug distributors.

“There’s just such a significant amount of evidence sitting in front of us about what happened at Purdue that it feels like that provision of the settlement needs to be treated differently,” he said. “We will be able to achieve a settlement with Purdue, we just need to do it right.”

Nicole Leonard joined Connecticut Public Radio to cover health care after several years of reporting for newspapers. In her native state of New Jersey, she covered medical and behavioral health care, as well as arts and culture, for The Press of Atlantic City. Her work on stories about domestic violence and childhood food insecurity won awards from the New Jersey Press Association.

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