As overdoses rise, Oregon's first opioid settlement payout arrives
Nearly $425 million from two nationwide opioid settlements will be a boon for Oregon's drug prevention and treatment programs.
Janssen Pharmaceutical company, the U.S.-based affiliate of Johnson & Johnson, announced earlier this year that it will pay up to $5 billion as part of a nationwide settlement agreement, which will see states and counties get funds to use toward opioid abuse prevention and addiction treatment.
Johnson & Johnson is one of four major drug companies paying out nearly $26 billion to resolve legal claims alleging the companies helped fuel the opioid scourge in the United States. Other companies involved in the legal settlement are drug distributors AmerisourceBergen, McKesson and Cardinal Health.
On July 29, the Oregon Department of Justice announced the state received the first round of payments in its $329 million payout from the Janssen case and is slated to get another $95 million from a Purdue Pharma settlement.
"These funds should have an immediate impact for Oregon families who have been advocating for more treatment and prevention programs," said Attorney General Rosenblum.
Oregon will get up $70 million this year from two different payouts, according to the DOJ. The state created an Opioid Settlement Prevention, Treatment and Recovery Board, administered by the Oregon Health Authority, to distribute the state's settlement funds and provide data about the outcomes from treatment and prevention services.
While Oregon's counties, cities and the state will receive a portion of funds, special districts including fire districts, a hospital district and the state's three largest school districts are also slated to receive funds via grants.
Multnomah County is scheduled to receive more than $3.48 million this year and the city of Portland more than $2 million, with a release of claims against Janssen.
The settlement agreement prioritizes funding for education and prevention efforts, including expanded distribution and training on how to administer naloxone or any other FDA-approved opioid overdose reversal drug. Medication-assisted addiction treatment is also a funding priority. Training should go to schools, first responders, law enforcement, youth-focused programs, community support groups and families, according to the settlement terms.
Funding for drug abuse prevention programs, especially those geared toward teens and youth, is called out several times in the Janssen agreement.
In an effort to speed up the distribution of funds, the school boards for Beaverton, Salem-Keizer and Portland Public Schools each approved a release of claims as part of the settlement agreement.
According to a staff memo to the PPS school board, 55% of Oregon's settlement funds will go to cities and counties. The settlement with Janssen "contains a provision that if certain special districts … all sign such releases, $45 million of the funds will be paid by the defendants in the first year instead of the money being paid over four years ..."
It's unclear exactly how each county and special district will use the funds. Portland school board members didn't discuss the settlement, but approved it Aug. 9 as part of a package of resolutions for board authorization.
The school district already makes the overdose prevention drug naloxone available at many of its schools. The drug comes in cartridge form as an injectable or as a nasal inhaler and is often used to prevent a fatal opioid overdose.
PPS has also bolstered its counseling services for students in recent years, offering guidance and help for substance abuse, student support staff told Pamplin Media Group earlier this year.
"All of the settlement monies will support programs for treatment and prevention of opioid abuse," Sydney Kelly, a PPS spokesperson, said Aug. 15. "PPS looks forward to utilizing these resources that are certain to have a positive impact on our community."
Oregon overdose deaths on rise
Having drug prevention and addiction treatment programs available to teens has become a higher priority for schools and government agencies, as use of opioids like oxycodone and fentanyl has led to addiction and death of some Portland-area students. Health authorities and law enforcement agencies have warned of counterfeit pills sold as oxycodone that actually contain fentanyl.
State health data shows a sharp spike in accidental overdose deaths in Oregon during the pandemic.
"Oregon significantly increased from a monthly average of 42 deaths in 2019 to 55 deaths in 2020, and over 80 deaths in 2021. The increase was primarily driven by increases in fentanyl and methamphetamine overdoses," a May 2022 Oregon communicable disease summary states.
On Aug. 16, the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office and Multnomah County Health Department warned of a seizure of weapons, cash, heroin, methamphetamine and large quantities of "rainbow fentanyl," which is more potent than pressed pills. Authorities believe the rainbow-colored fentanyl may target young users.
"It only takes 2 milligrams of fentanyl — about the weight of a few grains of salt — to cause a fatal overdose," the health department stated in a joint news release of the drug bust.
The Beaverton School District has a health information campaign about fentanyl, complete with a video featuring the family of Cal Epstein, a Beaverton student who accidentally overdosed on fentanyl and died.
Public health agencies have warned about the rise of students taking pills laced with fentanyl, or buying fentanyl disguised as oxycodone, unknowingly.
"He made a mistake," Jennifer Epstein, Cal's mother, said in a video used as part of the school district's "Fake & Fatal" campaign. "It used to be, kids made mistakes and learned from them. With fentanyl, if you make a mistake, you die."
The National Opioid Settlement website indicates more companies could face massive lawsuits.
"Litigation continues in state and federal courts around the country against other companies in the opioid supply chain," the informational site states.
In a statement from Johnson & Johnson back in February, the company said it no longer sells prescription opioid medications in the United States as part of "ongoing efforts to focus on transformational innovation and serving unmet patient needs."
Amid the massive nationwide payout from drug makers, Johnson & Johnson held firm in its denial of culpability for the nation's opioid crisis.
"We firmly believe that the claims against us hold no merit," the company stated on its website, noting the legal claims made against the pharmaceutical company "generally consist of vague claims with little connection to us or our medicines."
"We know that opioid abuse is a serious public health issue, and we remain committed to being a part of meaningful community-level solutions. We also know that we responsibly provided needed treatment options to physicians for their patients suffering from serious, long-term pain," the company went on to state. "Our Schedule II medicines had low rates of abuse, and we have appropriately and responsibly worked with regulators to prevent diversion and abuse of our opioid medicines."
An earlier version of this story misstated the origins Oregon's opioid settlement payout. The story has been corrected and updated with new information about the amounts and status of the payouts.
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