Palm Beach Post
Three years after suing opioid distributors and manufacturers for their role in the destructive opioid epidemic, Palm Beach County intends to move forward with a proposed settlement from four opioid distributors and manufacturers and could soon see financial relief.
After months of negotiation, Johnson & Johnson, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson in July agreed to a $26 billion settlement that at least 44 states, including Florida, joined.
Palm Beach County commissioners on Tuesday supported an agreement that details how Florida intends to distribute settlement dollars it receives and how they can be spent.
The county could start getting payments as early as February, said Shayna Sachs, an attorney with Napoli Shkolnik, which serves as outside counsel for Palm Beach County in this case.
To receive the full settlement amount of $1.65 billion from the four defendants, Florida must get support from a significant number of counties and municipalities, which would in turn impact how much Palm Beach County would receive.
“We believe that this is best for the county,” Sachs said.
2,000 opioid lawsuits across the country merge
Palm Beach County filed a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, distributors and three doctors in April 2018. That lawsuit was moved to federal court, then became part of a national, multidistrict litigation in Ohio with more than 2,000 other suits across the country.
Chief Assistant County Attorney David Ottey noted that the county’s legal action against the other defendants from its 2018 lawsuit would go to trial through the multidistrict litigation or be settled. Pending bankruptcies could also send more money to Palm Beach County.
The county can spend these dollars only on programs and methods that expand treatment for people impacted by substance use.
Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said she would “reluctantly” support the agreement but questioned the method of distribution and whether the county’s share would reflect the epidemic’s impact on the community.
“It’s frustrating to be sitting here today, and it’s frustrating that not all 67 counties in Florida, and certainly not the more than 400 cities in the state of Florida, decided to participate in any type of lawsuit holding these entities accountable for the damage and the death that they caused,” she said. “This settlement rewards all of those entities that didn’t file a lawsuit.”
If a smaller local government doesn’t have the resources to provide treatment or other services, the money will go into a regional distribution pot, said attorney Hunter Shkolnik.
“I just want to protect the resources in Palm Beach County to be able to provide services to people in Palm Beach County,” McKinlay said. “I have grave concerns that somehow that large percent that’s going to the state is going to turn into a political madhouse.”
Will any health-care professional advise how money will be spent?
Another concern shared by McKinlay and Maureen Kielian, president of Southeast Florida Recovery Advocates, was about who would be appointed to the state’s task force formed to advise the governor and local governments on how to spend these settlement dollars. The details of the 10-person task force do not specify that any appointee must be a health-care professional or have experience in the realm of recovery.
McKinlay and Kielian feared the task force, to be chaired by Attorney General Ashley Moody, would focus more on law enforcement over patients.
“This is not a law enforcement crisis. This is a public health crisis,” Kielien said.
While she supported the ways that the money could be spent, Kielian said she felt “disappointment” and “heartbreak” over the potential settlement, saying it “is not in support of the recovery community and the ongoing public health crisis.”
“Palm Beach County wasn’t given much of a choice,” Kielian said. “Their hands were tied by the attorney general with the fear of not getting anything if they chose not to be joining (the settlement).”
Sachs with Napoli Shkolnik noted that there are other benefits to the proposed settlement that go beyond money. Johnson & Johnson will be prohibited from selling opioids for 10 years and the three distributors must report where their drugs are being sold.