A SETTLEMENT: Local governments to receive $3.2 million in national opioid payments

Mike Wolanin | The Republic The exterior of The Commons with the Bartholomew County Courthouse pictured in the background in downtown Columbus, Ind., Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017.

Local governments in Bartholomew County will collectively receive an estimated $3.2 million as part of nationwide settlements with a major pharmaceutical manufacturer and the nation’s three largest drug distributors over their role in the opioid addiction crisis, state records show.

The estimated amounts, disclosed this week by the Indiana Attorney General’s Office, include an estimated $3 million for Bartholomew County, $194,011 for the city of Columbus and $9,343 for the town of Hope.

Of the total amount, $2.1 million of the county’s share, as well as $135,808 of the Columbus’ allotment and $6,540 of Hope’s funds, must be used for drug abatement efforts. The rest of money — roughly $901,715 for the county, $58,203 for Columbus and $2,803 for Hope — does not have any restrictions on its use, the attorney general’s office said.

The first checks are expected to go out this year and continue through 2038.

Bartholomew County’s first payment will include $442,616 in drug abatement funds and an additional $189,693 unrestricted funds, state records show. Columbus’ initial check will include $28,570 in abatement funds and $12,244 without any restrictions. Hope will get about $1,376 in abatement funds and $590 in unrestricted money.

“We expect payment to occur in the fall,” said Kelly Stevenson, press secretary for Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita.

National settlements

The disclosure of the settlement amounts comes nearly six months after drugmaker Johnson & Johnson and three distributors finalized nationwide settlements to resolve about 3,000 lawsuits from state and local governments who sought to hold the companies liable for an epidemic that has been linked to the deaths of more than 500,000 Americans over the past two decades, The Associated Press reported.

Taken together, the settlements total $26 billion and are the largest to date among the many opioid-related lawsuits that are still pending in courts across the country.

Under the terms of the settlements, Johnson & Johnson has nine years to pay its $5 billion share, including up to $3.7 billion during the first three years. The distributors — AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson — agreed to pay their combined $21 billion over 18 years.

Last month, the Indiana Attorney General’s Office announced that Indiana would receive $507 million as part of the multi-state agreement. The amount sent to each state under the opioid settlement depends on a formula that takes into account the severity of the crisis and the population.

The settlements resolved lawsuits that alleged that the companies helped fuel the opioid crisis, including downplaying the risk of addiction to prescription opioid pain medications, among other claims, according to wire reports.

The companies admit no wrongdoing as part of the settlement.

Jennings County, Jackson County, as well as the cities of Seymour, Franklin, Brownstown and Shelbyville, were among the communities in the Columbus area that joined litigation against the companies, state records show.

While none of the settlement money will go directly to victims of opioid addiction or their survivors, the vast majority of it is required to be used to deal with the epidemic.

However, the settlements go beyond money. Johnson & Johnson, which has stopped selling prescription opioids, agrees not to resume as part of the settlement. The distributors agree to send data to a clearinghouse intended to help flag when prescription drugs are diverted to the black market.

Bartholomew County was flooded with millions of opioid pills from 2006 to 2012, including two pharmacies in Columbus whose inventories of oxycodone and hydrocodone were among the five largest in the state.

Records from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration show that just more than 36 million oxycodone and hydrocodone pills were shipped to pharmacies in Bartholomew County from 2006 to 2012 — or roughly 68 pills per person each year.

More than 76 billion opioid pain pills were distributed to pharmacies across the country from 2006 to 2012, including 2.1 billion in Indiana.

The crisis later evolved from pain pills to heroin and now fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that more potent than heroin but cheaper to produce that local officials say is a major contributor to a historic rise in overdose deaths in Bartholomew County.

Local reaction

City and county officials, as well as the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress (ASAP), welcomed the injection of additional funding to combat the worsening drug crisis.

The update from state officials also comes just two weeks after a board created to review funding requests for substance abuse programming in Bartholomew County recommended $1.22 million — to be split evenly between the city and county — to fund four local efforts next year to combat and treat substance use disorders.

The funding included requests from ASAP, the Bartholomew County Adult Drug Recovery Court, Recovery Enables a Life for Men (REALM) program at Community Corrections and the Bartholomew County Jail Addiction Treatment Program.

But now, local governments in Bartholomew County may have some more money to dedicate to those efforts, or others.

“It gives the city and county both opportunities to support use recovery even further,” said ASAP Executive Director Sherri Jewett. “…We have good information on where gaps might be, what services are need, and the city and county are always interested in listening for that information from us and from other community partners.”

Launched in 2017, ASAP is a community-wide response to address substance use disorder, including the opioid crisis, in Bartholomew County. ASAP was formed through a partnership between Columbus and Bartholomew County governments and Columbus Regional Health.

Locally, city and county officials plan to work together to determine how to spend the funds, said Mary Ferdon, the city’s executive director of administration and community development.

Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop plans to meet with Bartholomew County Councilmember Mark Gorbett, representatives from Columbus Regional Health and others in the coming weeks to talk about the funding, Ferdon said.

“The city and county teams will probably sit down over the next couple of weeks and walk through the best use of the funds and how they fit into the current ASAP funding structure,” Ferdon said.

Bartholomew County Councilmember Matt Miller, for his part, said he was “glad” that the county would be seeing additional funding.

“I’m glad we’re going to get it,” Miller said. “…It’ll be nice to receive some money on a local level that we can put towards some of the programs we’ve already implemented.”

Bartholomew County Commissioner Carl Lienhoop characterized the settlement money as “good news” but said “I would hate to speculate on whose cookie jar it will end up falling into.”

In the meantime, the opioid crisis has continued to deepen during the COVID-19 pandemic, with opioid-related deaths reaching a high of more than 76,000 in the 12 months that ended in April 2021, largely due to the spread of fentanyl and other lab-made drugs, according to wire reports.

Locally, overdose deaths in Bartholomew County continue to be on a record-setting pace this year, largely driven by fentanyl, according to the Bartholomew County Coroner’s office.

There had been a total of 19 confirmed overdoses deaths in the county as of July 21, as well as two additional suspected overdose deaths that were still under investigation at the time, said Bartholomew County Deputy Coroner Jay Frederick.

That puts the county on pace to surpass the record 33 deaths that happened last year. At least 172 people in Bartholomew County have died from drug overdoses since 2015.

But those figures only capture a limited snapshot of the scope of the crisis, as they don’t include all the other lives destroyed and families and hearts broken over the years, officials say.

“Families that lost a loved one to an overdose probably would say (a settlement) is never going to replace the person that we lost,” Jewett said. “However, at this point, it’s an opportunity to take just a horrible situation across our nation and turn it into an opportunity to make things better for people. So, at this point, it’s putting the resources where they’re most needed. So, I do believe it’s a just settlement.”