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McLennan County OKs its piece of $26 billion opioid settlement
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McLennan County OKs its piece of $26 billion opioid settlement

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McLennan County hopes to amass a war chest as it battles opioid abuse and addiction. It likely will get more than $2.5 million as part of Texas’ recent $292 million settlement with opioid manufacturer Johnson & Johnson.

The county first filed suit against opioid manufacturers in 2017. Since then, it has joined claimants statewide and nationally in seeking financial remedies to the opioid epidemic, said Waco attorney Herb Bristow, who represents the county on this issue.

“We’ve been battling 4½ years, and hopefully this is the first in a series of settlements,” Bristow said.

Legal action by the county remains pending against Purdue Pharma and Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals. Both companies have filed for bankruptcy protection, which complicates proceedings, Bristow said.

In July, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Texas had joined a $26 billion, multistate opioid settlement with what he called “the nation’s three major pharmaceutical distributors,” McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen, as well as drug manufacturer Johnson & Johnson. A Paxton press release last month on the Johnson & Johnson settlement says the state and participating local governments could see up to $1.5 billion, which would include the $292 million deal with Johnson & Johnson and almost $1.2 billion more yet to be finalized from the distributors.

As McLennan County remains a party to the suit, commissioners last week approved taking part in the settlement.

Bristow said the county immediately receives a $140,000 payment, and becomes eligible to apply for $2.5 million from a state council, guided by physicians and mental health professionals familiar with opioids.

“Obviously, our objective is to get as much as we can. It’s so early, there remains uncertainty,” Bristow said. “It’s going to be significant, as the cases have been consolidated nationally and involve multi-district litigation. We’re working as hard as we can to get them resolved.”

At stake is money for programs addressing the fallout from opioid addiction, he said. Attorneys contend the scourge has left its mark on mental health, indigent health and the criminal justice system.

“There is a broad consequence to these addictions,” Bristow said.

The actual amount the state receives will depend on how many local governments join the settlement. Attorneys for some local Texas governments have yet to decide whether they want to join the settlement or try to secure larger payments on their own. The deadline to join the settlement is Jan. 2.

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said commissioners continue to discuss how best to allocate money from settlements. He said qualifying programs would include drug and alcohol rehabilitation and mental health.

“I know the opioid epidemic the last several years has cost the county a lot of money,” Felton said. “We’re talking about the work of MHMR and other nonprofits dealing with issues of opioid abuse. Indigent care has escalated.”

Felton said the settlement with Johnson & Johnson “means cash upfront here pretty quickly,” with the balance placed in trust for cities and counties.

“All 254 Texas counties will benefit to some extent,” though all may not have been directly involved in litigation, Felton said.

From 1999 to 2019, about half a million people in the United States died from overdoses involving opioids, including prescription drugs and nonpharmaceutical opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 69,000 people in the United States died of an overdose involving an opioid last year, a 52% increase from 2015, according to provisional CDC data. Paxton’s announcement of the settlement says 93,000 died of opioid overdose last year, a number that matches the CDC’s provisional count of all drug overdoses.

“We recognize the opioid crisis is a tremendously complex public health issue, and we have deep sympathy for everyone affected,” Johnson & Johnson General Counsel Michael Ullmann said in a statement after announcement of the agreement. “This settlement will directly support state and local efforts to make meaningful progress in addressing the opioid crisis in the United States.”

In addition to the monetary relief, the settlement would bar Johnson & Johnson from manufacturing, selling and promoting opioids for 10 years. The company stopped marketing opioids in the United States in 2015 and stopped producing them last year, according to The Texas Tribune.

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