Local Leaders: Recent Opioid Settlements A Good Bellwether

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Oct 21, 2019
New Hanover County and city of Wilmington officials hope for a successful outcome in their pending opioid lawsuits, as two test-run cases in Ohio have reached a $260 million settlement with drug companies in federal court.

These settlements do not resolve any local cases, said New Hanover County Commissioner Woody White.

“I think it’s a good bellwether,” said White, who is also an attorney. “I think there’s a large probability that this will move forward and New Hanover will be a part of that sometime soon."

The county, he said, already has several programs underway for these efforts that might benefit from a future settlement.

"I see this as a social issue, and not a political issue. And the social issue of funding for treatment and funding for abatement, and reversal medications and equipment, the quick response team that we have put in place, and that sort of thing," White said. 

According to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2017 there were nearly 11.4 million opioid pills dispensed in New Hanover County. In that same year, there were 69 unintentional overdose deaths, 217 opioid overdose emergency department visits, and 1,194 reported community naloxone reversals.

The city of Wilmington's case is also pending. 

“I’m sure there is a way to go in the process before it is done but I do feel it is moving in the right direction,” Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said Monday.

Two Ohio counties were set to go to trial in their pending cases Monday morning in federal court but a last-minute settlement worth $260 million was reached with three drug distributors, including AmerisourceBergen, and Teva, a drugmaker, according to national news reports Monday.

The cases were a test-run ahead of thousands of pending lawsuits in federal court, White said.

New Hanover County and Wilmington filed their lawsuits in 2017 against drug companies that they argued have contributed to the regional opioid crisis. Several other county and city governments in the state have also filed, including Brunswick County and the state attorney general.

Their cases and those cases settled Monday are part of the more than 2,500 plaintiffs -- including cities, counties and Native American tribes nationwide -- pending in a large multidistrict litigation taking place in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Ohio.

White attended the large court gathering last week regarding the pending lawsuits in Cleveland. He was one of only a handful of people in the nation that had the opportunity to address the judge in court.

Saffo, along with city attorney John Joye, also traveled to Cleveland last week for ongoing discussions related to the city's lawsuit, according to a city news release.

The discussions taking place last week in Ohio federal court focused on a possible settlement with drug companies, Saffo said.

According to a New York Times report, talks last week were on a tentative $48 billion settlement for thousands of pending lawsuits. But that settlement was stifled. The settlement, with the same bellwether case defendants, included $18 million in cash and other forms of relief, paid over 18 years.

The city’s case is currently on hold as talks continue for a global settlement, according to the city's release. The same is happening with the county's lawsuit.

In future litigations, it's unknown what amount the county or the city would get from any settlement moving forward. White said it really depends on the allocation model, which would be set by the federal judge.

White said he hopes to see the federal court "oversee an abatement program over time that's uniform and nationwide."

On Monday, Saffo had similar comments on the issue, stating that such federal oversight would make a determination of where a settlement would go and not be dependent on a legislative action from the state.

"We hope that we will be able to, with a settlement, get some relief and get some help in monies coming back into our community to help fight this epidemic," Saffo said.

The county's aim in a settlement would be very similar, officials said.

"The goal is to obtain as much money as possible from those responsible for the epidemic in order to fund ongoing abatement programs and to turn our community around," White said. "And to get us outside of the dubious spotlight that the Castlight [Health] report put us under, which is the opioid capital ... not only are people dying and the scourge persisting, it doesn't help economic development and tourism to have that moniker around your neck."

Castlight Health, a California-based health care information company, produced a report in 2016 titled "The Opioid Crisis in America's Workforce," which reported Wilmington had the highest percentage of opioid abuse among its population in the nation.
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