Big Pharma Held Responsible for Opioid Deaths . . . But Now What?
How should pharmaceutical legal settlement money be dispursed?
Shutterstock/Vintage Tone

Big Pharma Held Responsible for Opioid Deaths . . . But Now What?

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, so far during the opioid epidemic, roughly 218,000 Americans have been killed by overdoses tied to prescription pain pills. To put that number in perspective, it’s about two and a half times as many Americans as were killed in the Vietnam War, and 31 times as many as were killed at the Battle of Gettysburg. Unlike with major wars, the enemy, in this case, is complicated and difficult to identify.

But bearing much of the responsibility are large pharmaceutical companies, who aggressively pushed their addictive pain medications on unsuspecting patients. Thousands of governments–federal, state, and local–have all filed lawsuits against these drug companies. But this has led to another complicated problem: what to do with the large payouts resulting from these lawsuits. Here, Election Central takes a closer look.

Holding Them Accountable

First, before any payouts could even happen, it had to be determined how much large pharmaceutical companies should be held accountable for the opioid crisis. According to “big pharma,” their role in fueling addiction has been overstated, and that all of their drugs were approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). But according to state and local governments–who claim that addiction has cost them tens of billions of dollars in damages–the companies knew the potential danger of their drugs and yet flooded the market with them anyway, in order to make the greatest possible profit at the expense of patients’ lives.

The idea of holding an industry responsible in this way isn’t new. In fact, similar suits were filed against the tobacco industry in the 1990s, leading to a payoff totaling more than $200 billion distributed across 46 states.

But What’s the Problem Now?

Large pharmaceutical companies have settled the lawsuits against them by paying out hundreds of millions of dollars. But what’s not clear is where that money is going to go. No clear procedure exists for what to do with the payouts, or how much of the money should go to local versus state or federal governments. For example, earlier this month, a federal judge suspended the state of Ohio’s plan to make payouts to 24,000 local governments for their opioid-related expenses. At the same time, the state of Oklahoma won a $270 million settlement from Purdue Pharmaceuticals (the makers of OxyContin), only to have the federal government swoop in and demand a cut to reimburse Medicare and Medicaid expenses.

So, what’s the fair thing to do with the money? Some experts believe that it should go directly to the people who are suffering from addiction (for example, building and staffing new treatment centers). Others, however, think the money should go to local governments who have had to carry the burden of addiction-related expenses. Still others advocate for putting the money toward addiction research. The tragedy in all of this, of course, is that as governments bicker over how to spend the payout, people aren’t getting the help they need.

Remember the story about the large payouts from the tobacco industry in the 1990s? Only a tiny fraction of that money actually went to smoking cessation and prevention efforts. The bulk of it was used by state and local governments to pay for projects that had nothing to do with smoking. Experts want to make sure that the same thing doesn’t happen all over again this time.

What Do You Think? Opioid addiction continues to kill about 130 Americans every day. Imagine that you are a policy maker, responsible for determining how to spend a large payout from a pharmaceutical company in your state. How will you allocate the money? Explain.
Valerie Cumming

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