David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver
(Denver, Colo.) The Front Range is poised to see an opioid settlement of $384 million from the big three opioid distributors and Johnson & Johnson, an opioid manufacturer.
The settlement is part of a nationwide proposal to correct the wrongs of addicting millions of people to the pills. Hundreds of thousands have died nationwide.
Besides Johnson & Johnson, the other litigants are McKesson, Cardinal Health and Amerisource Bergen. The city must accept the settlement agreement by Jan. 2.
“In several states, including Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, and Virginia, nearly all litigating subdivisions already have signed up to receive funds,” according to a National Opioid Settlement news release.
“Since Thanksgiving alone, there has been a 300 percent increase in participation. Increases are expected to continue in the coming weeks as more communities send in their forms and agree on allocation models. More than 20 states already have reached allocations agreements with their cities and counties and many more are finalizing agreements.”
According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, more than 1,800 overdose deaths occurred this year statewide.
City Council’s Budget and Policy Committee reviewed settlement details this week. Denver City Attorney Kristin Bronson explained the settlement funds could trickle into Denver as early as July 2022.
Denver must use money to help addicted
The funds will be distributed over 18 years. The settlement requires the city to use the money to combat opioid addiction. That could mean building new substance abuse treatment centers. In some parts of Colorado, a person who overdoses must drive more than two hours for help.
One of the biggest failures of the tobacco settlement several years ago is that it did not address tobacco use and lung cancer, City Councilman Chris Hinds said. That money could be used for almost anything.
All cities in the Denver metro area will be asked to sign on to the settlement, which comes to $39 million for the City and County of Denver alone. A regional board will oversee spending the money.
“Overdoses are increasing throughout the country and abatement funds are urgently needed,” according to a statement by the Plaintiffs Executive Committee. “More than 100,000 people died from overdoses between April 2020 and April 2021, the highest rate of overdose deaths that the U.S. has ever experienced. This crisis continues to worsen, and communities need support now.
“If states fail to participate in these settlements, they face three to five more years of litigation. The support of the settlements that we have seen thus far is an indication that many communities need help now and cannot afford to wait that long to address this epidemic. This is a nationwide public health crisis that requires a nationwide solution.”
Other measures imposed on opioid companies
Some council members who sit on the committee wondered whether the opioid manufacturers were getting off easy. But city staff pointed out the settlement also contains non-financial provisions, such as museum wings being devoid of family names associated with opioids.
Also, the big three opioid distributors and Johnson & Johnson will be prohibited from manufacturing and distributing opioids for several years.
“We no longer will see a flooding of opioid pills into towns and cities,” Bronson said.
Amount used for mental health beds limited
In the meantime, Bronson said the city will continue to litigate against opioid companies. Aggressive litigation by Denver and Colorado helped achieve the settlement, she said.
“Discovery continues,” Bronson said. “We will continue to litigate and hopefully settle.”
Councilwoman Debbie Ortega noted what she sees as a deficiency in the way the money can be spent. Behavioral health centers built with opioid settlement money cannot contain more than 18 patients with mental health disorders, she said. Treatment is mainly limited to those with substance abuse disorders.
But as Ortega pointed out, a dual diagnosis is common in addiction treatment. Dual diagnosis is when someone has both mental health and substance abuse diagnoses.
Ortega will serve as the City Council’s representative on the soon-to-be-formed regional board.
Kniech wants more addiction experts on board
Denver City Councilwoman Robin Kniech wondered why so many elected officials serve on the regional board while few academics and scientists do.
Bronson explained that the board initially is comprised of elected officials to give them a framework for governance. She encouraged the board to recruit more members from the science and academic community members for future seats.
She said keeping academics and scientists off the board at the beginning of the process is intended to prevent conflicts of interest. “I don’t want to leave the impression that there is a plan to leave out addiction and recovery subject matter experts,” Bronson said.
The board also should include members of victims' families and survivors, Kniech said.