The city of Kent expects this month to receive the first of 17 annual payments totaling an estimated $1.15 million as part of the state’s half-billion dollar opioid settlement with three pharmaceutical companies stemming from a lawsuit by Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
Ferguson announced in October that Washington state is set to receive the maximum $518 million under a resolution with McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc. and AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp., each found to have played key roles in fueling the opioid epidemic. Kent is one of 125 eligible local governments that signed onto the opioid resolution.
“While the city is pleased that opioid producers and distributors are being held financially accountable through this litigation, the opioid epidemic is of such magnitude that no amount of settlement funds will ever rectify all of the problems created by these corporations,” said City Attorney Tammy White in an email. “The problems created by the actions of these companies are long-term and have resulted in many lives lost, many families destroyed and an immense strain on our social and justice systems.”
Ferguson asserted that McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen violated the law by filling thousands of suspicious orders in Washington state without adequately identifying them or reporting them.
From Kent’s $1.15 million, White said 15% is deducted to contribute to the payment of attorney fees and expenses incurred to prosecute the claims against the opioid distributors. Once the 15% is deducted, Kent will receive approximately $982,719, which will be paid out in annual payments over 17 years.
Kent’s first payment will be roughly $86,151, White said.
“The city of Kent has not yet made any decisions as to how it will spend the settlement funds it receives,” White said. “Those decisions will be made at a future time.”
According to the state Attorney General’s Office, cities must spend the funds to be consistent with the state Opioid Response Plan.
Approved strategies include:
• Improving and expanding treatment for opioid use disorder
• Supporting individuals in treatment and recovery, including providing comprehensive wrap-around services to individuals with opioid use disorder, including housing, transportation, education, job placement, job training or childcare
• Addressing the needs of pregnant women and their families, including those with babies with neonatal disorder
• Preventing opioid misuse, overprescribing and overdoses through, among other strategies, school-based and youth-focused programs, public education campaigns, increased availability and distribution of naloxone and other drugs that treat overdoses, additional training and enhancements to the prescription drug monitoring program; and
• Supporting first responders.
Opioid impacts on Kent
The litigation process for Kent began in 2018 when the City Council approved filing a civil complaint to join other cities and sue numerous opioid manufacturers and distributors for deceptive marketing practices.
Then-City Attorney Pat Fitzpatrick, now city chief administrative officer, told the council in 2018 that the foundations of the lawsuits “are these companies flooded the market with very, very highly addictive drugs under the guise of prescription medication and that the risk of the drug was not properly disclosed.
“In fact, addiction was in some cases used as a strategy to sell more of the product and the dangers of the drugs were not disclosed. As a result, opioids were over-prescribed, opioid addiction increased dramatically over the last decade, overdose deaths from opioids increased dramatically, and these activities have spawned a heroin epidemic.”
Fitzpatrick said the defendants produced opioid prescription drugs and that 80% of those who became addicted to heroin in the past decade started with a prescription to OxyContin or another prescription opioid.
“When their prescriptions ran out and they could no longer get their drug from their doctor, they moved to street heroin – that’s really the foundation of the lawsuit,” Fitzpatrick said.
White said the impacts on Kent are many.
“In short, opioids have impacted Kent through the years as shown through increases in the number fatal drug overdoses, the number of babies who experienced prenatal exposure to opioids, and increased costs to the Kent community to respond to the opioid crisis through the criminal justice system, opioid addiction treatment programs and social services,” White said.
The city attorney said problems remain.
“While the settlement funds the city receives through this litigation will help respond to these issues, they will not solve them or make the city whole,” White said.
According to Kent’s lawsuit, the number of fatal overdoses in the city jumped from 16 in 2008 to 26 in 2017, a 62% increase. A substantial percentage of these overdoses involved opioids.
The Pediatric Interim Care Center (PICC) in Kent helps care for babies exposed to opioids before they are born. Out of the 79 infants the center cared for in 2017, 71 had prenatal exposure to opioids. Many must be weaned off opioids gradually because of the severity of withdrawal.
Compared to the 1990s when PICC first opened, clinic staff now often treat addicted babies and moms living in middle class homes rather than on the street, according to court documents.
“These moms have homes,” according to a quote from the PICC executive director in the complaint. “They have cars. They have money to go the store to buy a gallon of milk. While they ended up using heroin, many of these mothers started with OxyContin.”
Other impacts include Kent Municipal Court, which spends substantial resources prosecuting crimes related to opioids and court system has seen increase in heroin use in the last five years, according to the complaint. There also has been an increase in property and theft crimes driven by opioid addiction.
The city jail has been impacted by individuals arrested for possession of opioids or opioid-related crimes.
More settlements ahead
This was the first of what are expected to be many more settlements with opioid producers and distributors as the suits continue by the state, King County and the city of Kent, White said.
“There are several other settlements that are in the works with other pharmaceutical manufacturers, pharmacy defendants, and settlement allocations to be made in bankruptcy proceedings with still other pharmaceutical manufacturers,” White said.
White said the opioid litigation is multi-faceted and complicated, which is why Kent along with a number of other Washington cities retained outside counsel (the Seattle law firm of Keller Rohrback) experienced with complex class action litigation.
Companies that have been sued by the state, county and Kent include Purdue Pharma, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson and others.
“The distributor defendants intentionally failed to report suspicious orders and actively pushed back against efforts to enforce the law and restrict the flow of opioids into communities like Kent,” according to court documents.