Island County and Oak Harbor will be getting their first checks before the end of the year in a state settlement with distributors of opioid medication.
The county will get nearly $1.5 million over 17 years, but additional settlements with other companies are expected in the future.
Last week, the Island County commissioners agreed to a One Washington Memorandum of Understanding that lays out how the money can be spent and how it will be monitored in a five-county region to make sure the money is used legitimately in responding to the opioid epidemic.
“We fashioned this with the idea of keeping as much discretion and decision-making authority at the county level because each individual county knows their problems better than probably even the regional organizations,” Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks told the commissioners.
In an email, Banks explained that state Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued opioid distributors and Johnson & Johnson, which blocked the counties from participating in a national settlement. In October, Ferguson announced a half-billion-dollar settlement with the top three distribution companies, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, and McKesson. The settlement will be split between state and local government.
“We didn’t want to see a repeat of the tobacco litigation, where the state kept the bulk of the money, instead of using it for remediation of tobacco addiction at the county level,” Banks said.
Island County is set to get about 0.68% and Oak Harbor will get 0.25% of $215 million, paid out over 17 years. That translates to about $1.466 million total for the county or about $86,000 a year, Banks said, but the check this month will be double that since it will cover two years. The rest of the country got the first checks last year under the national settlement, he said.
The state’s settlement with the companies was $46 million more than Washington would have received under the national settlement, but it’s unclear how much of the state’s settlement will go to the private law firm that Ferguson hired to represent the state.
Banks said an expected settlement with Walmart, Walgreens and CVS will likely be in the same order of magnitude. He said other settlements or bankruptcy orders are expected from Purdue, Johnson & Johnson and a generic drug maker, as well as potentially other manufacturers and marketers.
Under the regional agreement, the money can be spent on offering treatment; supporting people in treatment and recovery; connecting those in need to services; addressing the needs of people with opioid use disorder who are involved in the criminal justice system; addressing the needs of pregnant and parenting women and their families; preventing the over-prescribing of opioids; preventing the misuse of opioids; preventing overdose deaths; and providing training to staff.
Oak Harbor City Administrator Blaine Oborn said city officials are evaluating how to use the funds in coordination with Island County under the terms of the agreement. County officials aren’t sure at this point exactly how the money will be spent or if it will be used to augment the county’s current opioid programs.
Commissioner Jill Johnson, who’s on the board for the North Sound Behavioral Health Administration Services Organization, said the settlement was “a hard-fought acknowledgment of the absolute predatory nature of the drug companies, but it doesn’t come close to making amends.”
“Lives were destroyed,” she said. “Families broken. Our criminal justice system has been overwhelmed by the crimes associated with addiction. I’m not sure there is any amount of money that makes amends. This certainly doesn’t, but it’s a small step.”
“I can say that the dollars we receive will never equal the harm done to Island County and the lives of its families as a result of the opioid epidemic that these corporations inflicted on us,” Banks said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than a half million people died from opioid overdoses from 1999-2020 and the rate of overdoses continued to rise during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pharmaceutical companies were accused of fueling the opioid epidemic by downplaying or lying about the potential for addiction of opioid pain medication while encouraging physicians to prescribe the pills.