Cobb joins billion-dollar opioid settlement, which still needs state approval

Cobb County officials on Thursday supported a $26 billion settlement agreement proposed by opioid distributors and Johnson & Johnson, one of the drug's leading manufacturers. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)
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Cobb County officials on Thursday supported a $26 billion settlement agreement proposed by opioid distributors and Johnson & Johnson, one of the drug's leading manufacturers. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

Cobb County has signed on to get its share of a $26 billion settlement with companies accused of helping fuel America’s opioid crisis.

Cobb was among thousands of local governments across the nation that filed lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson, a leading opioid manufacturer, and three of the nation’s largest drug distribution companies — McKesson Corp, Cardinal Health Inc., and Amerisource Bergen Corp.

Cobb’s Board of Commissioners on Thursday passed a resolution to participate in the landmark settlement.

Cobb County Chairperson Lisa Cupid pushed for commissioners to approve the measure. She said the money, most of which is intended to be used for drug prevention programs and to help opioid addicts, could go to neighboring counties if Cobb did not accept the settlement

“This is a very serious issue in our community today,” she said. “And we have an option to do something with resources or to do nothing with resources, and see someone else do something with those same resources to combat this epidemic.

“We are in a position to help our own,” Cupid added.

The lawsuits alleged the distributors ignored signs that the prescription pain killers were being used illegally while Johnson & Johnson downplayed the risks of opioid addiction, Reuters reported in August.

The companies deny the allegations. The settlement agreement, announced July 21, aims to bring an end to years of legal wrangling in the cases. Cities and counties in participating states have until Jan. 2 to accept the deal.

The four companies will then have until Feb. 1 to decide if there is enough local support before deciding whether to implement the settlement.

According to the agreement, McKesson Corp, Cardinal Health Inc., and Amerisource Bergen Corp would pay a combined $21 billion, and Johnson & Johnson would shell out $5 billion on top of that. The companies will make the payouts annually over the next 18 years.

Georgia could receive up to $636 million as part of the settlement terms — the state would receive 75% of the funds and local governments will split the remaining 25%.

Counties like Cobb, where the population is more than 400,000, would be classified as stand-alone regions that qualify to get 40% of the state’s share.

Approving the resolution Thursday was the first step in unlocking the settlement dollars for Cobb. It is not yet clear exactly how much money the county stands to receive.

One hitch in the plan could be Attorney General Christopher Carr. Pay outs for municipalities across the state are contingent upon Georgia officials putting their support behind the deal. Georgia is one of at least six states yet to opt-in on the settlement. Carr indicated in the Reuters report that he is still negotiating terms for Georgia’s participation.

Spokespersons for the Attorney General’s Office did not respond to questions from the AJC on Friday.

The settlement agreement includes several conditions intended to mitigate the future effect opioid abuse can have on communities. Johnson & Johnson would not be able to market or sell opioid products for the next 10 years and agreed to stop its lobbying efforts for the painkiller over that span.

The distributors would create a clearinghouse of shipments to “detect, stop and report suspicious opioid orders,” Cobb County Attorney William Rowling Jr. told commissioners.

At least 70 percent of the settlement dollars Cobb receives would be spent on creating or expanding opioid prevention programs

Cobb County Commissioner Keli Gambrill voted against the settlement.

“While this lawsuit is garnering millions and billions of dollars, it’s still doing nothing to address how the opioids get onto the streets,” she said, later questioning how the county could sustain what the settlement starts.

“We’re going to be taking millions of dollars and starting programs that down the road, once this money runs out, will potentially be expected to be funded through our general budget.”

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