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Nearly $26B Settlement for Cities Struggling with Opioids

McMINNVILLE (Ore.) -- The opioid crisis swept through this beautiful Oregon town like a storm, leaving behind overdoses and addiction, as well as homelessness, and wrecked families.

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Nearly $26B Settlement for Cities Struggling with Opioids

Three blocks away from McMinnville's cafes and wine-tasting rooms, a single-story brick building houses staff and volunteers from Provoking Hope, a rehabilitation center. Workers who are also recovering from drug addiction offer coffee, counseling, and clean syringes for some.

McMinnville, along with thousands of towns around the United States, is on the brink of receiving billions in the second-largest legal settlement in American history. Three drug distributors and a manufacturer of opioids would pay $26 billion to address the damage caused by opioids. The federal government declared it a public emergency in 2017.

The deadline for signing onto the agreement is three weeks. Most states have already agreed to this deadline. There are still a few exceptions, such as Oregon, where there have been disagreements between local and state officials.

It is urgently needed. It would be expanded counseling and treatment in Yamhill County where McMinnville is county seat.

Anne Muilenburg, Provoking Hope's office manager has witnessed the terrible effects of drug addiction firsthand. Her addiction began after her doctor prescribed opioids. They were prescribed for a painful spine bone spur. Ten years later, she was still taking 35 pills daily, despite her prescription. She also bought two prescriptions from other people.

"It wasn’t enough to make my feel high. Muilenburg stated that it was enough to not make her sick. She described opiate withdrawal, which she experienced when she ran out of pills, as "the worst feeling" ever.

She recalled that it made her feel like someone was peeling off your skin. Her small office was decorated with posters featuring sayings such as "be kind" or "stay humble."

Muilenburg was finally able to get treatment, but she then "drug jumped" into alcohol and methamphetamine. She lost her job as a car dealer and split with her husband. They have since been reunited. She spent time in jail and ended up living on the streets.

Muilenburg stated that being homeless was one reason he wanted to make a change in his life.

Since 2004, she has been drug-free for over 4 1/2 years. Muilenburg stated that funds from the settlement were needed to treat the community's drug dependence.

"We need more treatment centres. She said that every place needs more treatment centres. It's absurd that someone wants to receive treatment, but they must wait 8-10 weeks to get a bed.

More than 500,000 Americans have died from opioid overdoses in the United States. This includes prescription and illegal drugs.

The clock is ticking for the settlement. It will pay out more than the $200 billion plus tobacco settlement in 1998 with four of the largest tobacco companies in the country.

AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health, as well as Johnson & Johnson, agreed to pay $26 billion each to settle thousands of lawsuits against state and local governments. However, if defendants feel that there is a lack in participation by the states or local jurisdictions, they could withdraw from the landmark agreement.

Joe Rice, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, stated that "the defendants have the last bit at the apple to say: 'Does it have a critical mass?'"

Participating states, counties, and cities would be required to give up any lawsuits against defendants in exchange for the payment. They also agree to not sue them for future opioid epidemic cases.

Caleb Alexander, a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health drug safety expert, said that "there are complex tradeoffs here." "The settlement would provide much-needed funding to help scale up treatment and address the opioid epidemic. Many parties feel that the settlement is inadequate.

Plaintiffs' lawyers said Friday that at least 45 states have signed up or indicated their intention to do so. At least 4,012 counties have confirmed their participation.

Washington has already rejected participation, and Attorney General Bob Ferguson called the settlement "woefully inadequate." In a trial that began November, he's suing three of the largest drug distributors in the country -- the same ones included in the national settlement -- for $38 million.

Pennsylvania's district attorneys in Philadelphia and Allegheny County (which includes Pittsburgh) sued the state attorney General to stop their lawsuits against drug companies. They claimed that their communities would only receive a fraction of the financial loss from the settlement.

Larry Krasner, Philadelphia District Attorney, stated that he would not accept a settlement that was a "sellout".

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro claims that receiving settlement payments is a certain thing, and not continuing to sue the companies. He said that local governments have the option to opt out of the settlement and continue suing the companies, but the state would not receive as much if they did.

New Mexico is still working on details. "And we anticipate that counties and local government will respond soon," Jerri Mares, the state attorney general's bureau.

According to The Lund Report (a news site about health care), Oregon lawyers representing local governments and the state have recently reached an agreement on how settlement funds would be distributed.

Oregon wanted local governments to apply for grants. Instead, the local governments wanted a greater share of direct payments. It is now unclear how much of the settlement should be paid to attorneys who sued for several Oregon counties.

Kulla, Yamhill County Commissioner, supports the opioid settlement, but does not want excessive state control.

He stated that "we at the counties are those who work with the addicted and their families and we bear the societal consequences of these addictions."

The settlement stipulated that the payments would be spread over 18 years. The state governments controlled the tobacco settlement. Most of the money did not go to the tobacco toll. Opioid settlements, on the other hand, are structured to ensure that most of the money goes towards fighting the crisis.

Kulla knows that there is no quick fix.

Kulla stated, "It's going be long-term." It will take generations to get out of this.

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