4 U.S. companies will pay $26 billion to settle claims over the opioid crisis The companies, including Johnson & Johnson and McKesson, will admit no wrongdoing. Billions of dollars in payouts will fund drug treatment and harm reduction programs.

4 U.S. companies will pay $26 billion to settle claims they fueled the opioid crisis

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Four of the nation's biggest health care companies will pay roughly $26 billion to settle claims that helped fuel the deadly opioid crisis. The settlement was announced early this morning. Payments from the firms, including Johnson & Johnson and McKesson, will go to help fund drug treatment programs for the next couple of decades. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann has been following this. Brian, what are these companies accused of doing wrong that they're paying that much money?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Yeah, Johnson & Johnson made generic opioid medications. The other three firms aren't big, name-brand companies, but they're huge wholesalers. AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson, they shipped these pain pills to pharmacies all over the country. And governments accused them of making and distributing these highly addictive medications recklessly at a time when addiction rates and overdoses were surging. Here's North Carolina State Attorney General Josh Stein, who helped negotiate this deal.

JOSH STEIN: These companies made billions of dollars while millions of Americans got hooked on opioids. This settlement goes a long way in holding them accountable for the role they had in creating and fueling the crisis.

MANN: Now, in statements today, A, the companies denied any wrongdoing. They strongly dispute these allegations that they fueled the opioid crisis. But with this settlement, they hope to put this all behind them. These opioid lawsuits have been just a huge public relations disaster for these firms.

MARTÍNEZ: And this comes at a time when drug overdoses are killing record numbers of people in the U.S. - more than 100,000 deaths last year. Is this money expected to help?

MANN: Yeah. You know, I asked Josh Stein about this, and he says yes. A lot of local governments around the country are so cash strapped right now because of the pandemic, their public health departments need help, and this will mean a steady stream of funding for drug rehab and treatment programs.

STEIN: There will be people alive next year who otherwise would not have made it because of the programs and services that we are now going to be able to fund with these settlement proceeds.

MANN: But all the experts I talked to agree that this opioid crisis is so big and getting bigger that this money is a fraction of what's needed. Most of the costs of this epidemic is going to keep being paid for by taxpayers.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Twenty-six billion dollars, though, still a lot of money, only about a tenth of the size of the tobacco settlements of the '90s. Do the people you're talking to, Brian, say this settlement maybe brings them a sense of justice?

MANN: It's hard to put a price tag on this opioid crisis. Prescription opioids alone have killed a quarter million Americans over the last two decades; street opioids, like heroin and fentanyl, killing hundreds of thousands more. I talked with Joe Rice about this with the firm Motley Rice. He's one of the lead attorneys suing Big Pharma. And he says he thinks $26 billion is a fair amount for these companies to pay. And Rice said it's important that under these settlement agreements, most of the money is now locked in for drug treatment programs. It can't be diverted for other uses.

JOE RICE: And give them some sustained payments over the next 10, 15, 18 years to start rebuilding their communities and deal with this epidemic that we're dealing with.

MANN: You know, this landmark deal took years to negotiate. It went on, the talks, for many, many years. But now, A, this money is going to start flowing out to communities pretty fast. The first dollars will go out in April.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann talking about a $26 billion opioid settlement announced just this morning. Brian, thanks.

MANN: Thank you.

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