Drugmaker Johnson & Johnson and three major distributors — including Conshohocken-based AmerisourceBergen — finalized nationwide agreements on Friday over their role in the opioid addiction crisis, an announcement that paves the way for $26 billion to go to of almost every state and local government in the United States.
Taken together, the settlements are the largest to date among the many opioid-related cases that have unfolded across the country.
J&J, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson announced the settlement plan last year, but the agreement was contingent on the participation of a critical mass of state and local governments.
Every county in Pennsylvania and New Jersey eventually signed on to the settlement. Pennsylvania is set to receive $1 billion, including more than $180 million earmarked for Philadelphia, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro said last month. New Jersey is on track to receive more than $641 million, its state attorney general’s office said.
Friday was the deadline for the companies to announce whether enough governments had pledged to participate in the settlement and waive the right to sue. The four companies have informed government lawyers that their thresholds have been met, meaning money could start flowing to communities by April.
“We will never have enough money to immediately fix this problem,” said Joe Rice, senior local government attorney. “What we’re trying to do is give a lot of small communities a chance to try to fix some of their issues.
While none of the settlement money goes directly to victims of opioid addiction or their survivors, the vast majority is needed to help deal with the epidemic.
Kathleen Noonan, CEO of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers in New Jersey, said some of the money should be used to provide housing for homeless people with addictions.
“We have clients who struggle to stay clean to go to a shelter,” she said. “We would like to stabilize them so that we can help them recover.”
Camden County government spokesman Dan Keashen said officials could use the money for a public warning campaign against fentanyl, put more addiction counselors on the streets, send in additional social workers in the municipal courts and pay for drug addiction in the county jail.
As fatal overdoses continue to rage in the United States, largely due to fentanyl and other illicitly produced synthetic opioids, health experts are urging governments to ensure access to drug treatment for drug addicts. They also stress the need to fund proven programs, collect data on their efforts, and launch prevention efforts aimed at young people, while focusing on racial equity.
“It shouldn’t be: loan, loan, spend,” said Joshua Sharfstein, associate dean of public health at Johns Hopkins University. “It should be: think, strategize, spend.”
In a separate agreement that is also included in the $26 billion, the four companies reached a $590 million settlement with federally recognized Native American tribes. About $2 billion is set aside for the fees and expenses of attorneys who have spent years working on the case.
J&J, based in New Brunswick, NJ, has nine years to pay its share of $5 billion. Distributors will pay their combined $21 billion over 18 years.
Settlements go beyond money. J&J, which has stopped selling prescription opioids, pledges not to resume. Distributors agree to send data to a clearing house to help report the diversion of prescription drugs to the black market.
The companies are not admitting wrongdoing and are continuing to defend themselves against allegations that they helped cause the opioid crisis.
In Camden, Lisa Davey, a recovery specialist at Maryville Addiction Treatment Center, was at a needle exchange this week handing out naloxone, a drug that reverses overdoses, and asking people if they wanted to start a processing.
Davey said she wants detox and treatment programs to receive more funding to keep people there longer. As it stands, users can detox and be back on the streets looking for drugs within days.
“They need more time to work on their recovery,” she said.
Martha Chavis, president and CEO of Camden Area Health Education Center, which runs the needle exchange, said there was a need to offer services like hers in more places. Now users from outer suburbs travel to Camden to get clean needles and kits to test their drugs for fentanyl.
Inquirer team writer Catherine Dunn contributed to this story.