CT officials pledge to use settlement money to fight opioid crisis

Two weeks into the state legislature’s 2022 session, Democrats and Republicans are already debating many proposals. But they agree on at least one key issue: How to deploy hundreds of millions of dollars from a new opioid settlement.

Elected officials on both sides of the aisle said they want to ensure that the approximately $300 million payout that the state is set to receive as part of a national settlement with four pharmaceutical giants would be directed to efforts to tackle the opioid crisis. Those funds, as well as money from a potential settlement with OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma, are urgently needed amid an unrelenting epidemic that has resulted in several thousand people in Connecticut dying from opioid overdoses in the past few years.

“What we wanted to make sure of in this agreement is that we focused all the money and all of the resources on abatement and that we use science and public health expertise and knowledge to drive these investments,” Connecticut Attorney General William Tong said during an online meeting last week of the state’s Alcohol and Drug Policy Council.

Bipartisan focus on opioid crisis

Connecticut’s $300 million allocation comprises its share of the approximately $26 billion multistate settlement with distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, McKesson and drug-maker Johnson & Johnson, a total that comprises a record payout from opioid-related litigation. The settlement resolves claims from local and state governments that those companies helped fuel the opioid crisis by not responding to warning signs about the over-proliferation of addictive pain drugs and misleading patients and doctors about the risk of opioid addiction.

State officials announced last July their endorsement of the settlement, and every municipality in the state has since also signed on. The settlement funds would be paid over the next 18 years. The first payment, for approximately $26 million, is expected to be made in July.

Elected officials have repeatedly pledged to use those settlement funds on programs to abate a crisis that resulted in 1,361 confirmed drug-overdose deaths in the state in 2021, as of the first week of December, according to the state Department of Public Health. There were 1,378 overdose deaths in the state in 2020, an increase of 14 percent from 2019.

To cement the earlier promises, Gov. Ned Lamont has proposed a bill that would guarantee proceeds from the new settlement, and any future opioid litigation, would support efforts to tackle the epidemic. At the same time, House and Senate Democrats have proposed similar legislation.

“We have to protect those funds, so they can be used in the right manner to save lives,” states Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, a physician and vice chairman of the legislature’s Public Health Committee, said in an interview.

In a sign of bipartisan cooperation, leaders of the Senate Republican minority have announced their own bill to protect the settlement money.

“Senate Republicans have repeatedly called for Connecticut to safeguard opioid settlement funds,” Senate Republican Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, and Senate Republican Leader Pro Tempore Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, said in a joint statement. “We applaud the desire to work collectively to achieve this goal and thank the governor and attorney general for sharing their proposal.”

The proposed bills’ requirements contrast with the lack of restrictions on the funds generated from states’ 1998 settlement of their lawsuits against major tobacco companies.

For the 2021 fiscal year, states collected about $27 billion from that settlement and tobacco taxes, according to the nonprofit Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. But they allocated only about 2 percent for programs to prevent kids from smoking and help smokers quit, the nonprofit said.

“I want to make sure that what we do works, and I want to make sure this money doesn’t get diverted. Tobacco (money) got diverted,” Lamont said in the Alcohol and Drug Policy Council meeting. “We’ve set up this independent council to make sure this money can go in places where it can make an enormous difference.”

Connecticut has received a total of approximately $2.8 billion in tobacco settlement-related payments, according to data recently provided by the state Attorney General’s Office.

“In conversations with state leaders around the country, including governors’ offices, attorneys general and state legislators, we are confident that states have learned valuable lessons from the misuse of tobacco settlement funds,” Kristen Pendergrass, vice president of state policy at Shatterproof, a Norwalk nonprofit that is working to end the addiction crisis, said in an interview. “State policymakers around the country have shown their dedication to using opioid settlement dollars to save lives through investment in evidence-based strategies for prevention, treatment, harm reduction and recovery supports.”

Questions and concerns about Purdue Pharma

The proposed bills would also regulate the management of funds from a prospective settlement with Stamford-based Purdue Pharma.

Tong is one of eight state attorneys general who appealed to a bankruptcy judge’s approval last September of Purdue’s settlement plan, which the company values ​​at more than $10 billion.

Last December, another judge vacated the bankruptcy judge’s decision. Since early January, representatives of the appealing states, Purdue and the Sackler family members who own the company have participated in numerous meetings by phone, online and in person aimed at hammering out an agreement. But the parties so far have not made a deal.

Among other cases, Connecticut last year joined nearly every other state in reaching a $573 million settlement with consulting firm McKinsey & Co., resolving their investigations of the firm’s alleged support of efforts to boost opioid sales of pharmaceutical companies, including Purdue. Connecticut is receiving about $7.5 million from that agreement.

“We had the settlement with McKinsey. I’m working on Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers,” Tong said in the Alcohol and Drug Policy Council meeting. “There are still more investigations to come, more prosecutions and litigation to come. We expect more money to flow to treatment, prevention and addiction science. What we do here will help chart a course for all of that.”

Amid the widespread commitment to using settlement funds to abate the opioid crisis, many people believe those settlements do not fully hold accountable pharmaceutical companies such as Purdue.

As part of a settlement with the Department of Justice, Purdue as a company pleaded guilty in November 2020 to three criminal charges of conspiring to defraud the government and violating anti-kickback law. No individuals, however, were charged in connection with that plea.

At the same time, the Sacklers involved with Purdue agreed to a $225 million settlement with the Justice Department to resolve allegations of marketing and financial misconduct at Purdue. The Sacklers did not admit to any wrongdoing as part of that deal, and they have denied the allegations in lawsuits such as Connecticut’s that they were involved in malfeasance at Purdue.

Neither the settlement with the Justice Department nor the one that Purdue has proposed for settling the pending lawsuits would prohibit possible criminal prosecution of the Sacklers.

Last week, Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal, Edward Markey, Ron Wyden, Maggie Hassan, Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin and Joe Manchin sent a letter to US Attorney General Merrick Garland, calling on the Justice Department to investigate whether Sackler members engaged in criminal conduct in connection with Purdue’s admitted criminal wrongdoing. The senators also asked the department to investigate whether any of the Sacklers’ subsequent conduct warrants criminal investigation.

“This settlement and plea are little solace for the millions who lost their lives and livelihoods at the hands of Purdue and the individuals at its helm — the Sackler family,” the senators wrote to Garland. “While the department also reached a civil settlement with certain individual members of the Sackler family for their roles in causing this crisis, real justice in this case means holding individual lawbreakers criminally accountable.”

Messages left this for representatives of the Sacklers and the Department of Justice asking for their response to the letter were not returned.

pschott@stamfordadvocate.com; twitter: @paulschott

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