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Opioid Settlement In Ohio Leaves Many Unanswered Questions


Two counties in Ohio have reached a major opioid settlement with the drug industry. It's valued at roughly $260 million. Local officials say that money paid out by drugmakers and distributors is desperately needed as they struggle to cope with the addiction crisis. But the settlement in Cleveland failed to produce clear legal precedents or any kind of national model for compensation as many observers had hoped. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Standing outside the courthouse in Cleveland, Donna Skoda, head of Summit County Ohio's Public Health Department, said this money will keep people alive.

DONNA SKODA: We see this as an opportunity to reach every single family member of those that have passed away and those that potentially are struggling with still addiction and be able to offer them that opportunity to stay alive and get help.

MANN: Cash-strapped communities in Ohio have often been forced to help those addicted to opioids using donations and volunteers. Greg McNeil, who lost his son Sam to an opioid overdose, says money from the drug industry will now help sustain recovery programs.

GREG MCNEIL: This isn't going away. We're going to be saddled with this for quite some years to come. It's just a start.

MANN: So there were hugs and high-fives after this deal was announced, but there was also a sense of letdown. This trial in Judge Dan Polster's court was supposed to be a test case. A jury's decision here would have offered a clear signal about the validity of thousands of opioid lawsuits filed by communities across the U.S. Because of this settlement, that kind of clarity didn't happen. A trial would also have revealed new information, including internal company documents describing how the industry kept distributing opioid medications even as overdose deaths skyrocketed. Mark Lanier, an attorney for the counties, says the industry still needs a public reckoning.

MARK LANIER: One company in particular, just in their email, says the DEA can suck it. The public hasn't seen those emails yet, and I hope at some point the public will get a chance to.

MANN: For now, those corporate records will be kept from the public and from government regulators, and this deal includes no admission of wrongdoing. A few hours after the Ohio agreement was announced, four state attorneys general came forward offering what they say is a path out of uncertainty. North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein says five drug companies, including Johnson & Johnson, McKesson and Teva, have agreed to a settlement valued at roughly $48 billion.

JOSH STEIN: We believe that it is going to bring a national solution to a national crisis. And our next step is to move quickly to finalize this deal. And I am optimistic that we will get other states as well as the cities and counties to get on board with this.

MANN: Stein says the money would be divided up among all 50 states, but reaching a global opioid settlement comparable to the tobacco settlement of the 1990s has been elusive. It didn't happen here in Ohio, and some state and local officials have already voiced opposition or skepticism to Stein's proposal. Dave Yost is attorney general of Ohio.

DAVID YOST: There are a ton of details - really important details - that have to be worked out here. I'm not against, per se. I'm just not ready to sign on.

MANN: Negotiations will continue as other trials now move forward. But one concern after yesterday's Ohio settlement is that some states and local governments will win opioid lawsuits or reach separate deals with the drug industry. Meanwhile, other communities hit just as hard by the opioid epidemic could get no compensation at all. Brian Mann, NPR News, Cleveland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.