Ohio, one of the nation’s leaders in opioid overdose deaths, is positioned to be on the receiving end of substantial payouts if the pharmaceutical industry loses in court.
In all, almost 2,000 lawsuits, about 100 of them brought by local governments around the state, have been filed and consolidated before a federal judge in Cleveland. Others include two filed on behalf of the entire state against painkiller manufacturers and distributors.
Gov. Mike DeWine, a former attorney general, said last week it would be a “serious mistake” for the state to allow current Attorney General Dave Yost to take over the lawsuits filed by city and county governments, which have sued drug companies for creating the opioid epidemic.
DeWine’s comment came after reports surfaced that Yost has been working with state lawmakers to draft legislation giving the attorney general authority over all the local government suits, and the distribution of 90 percent of any damages that may result from those actions.
Under the draft, at least 20 percent of the money would be earmarked for the local governments. Attorneys for those jurisdictions and the attorney general’s office each would receive a 5 percent cut. That would leave the remaining 70 percent for the state.
We hope the draft, at least the current form, doesn’t advance. Local governments, which are on the front lines of the epidemic, deserve a larger cut of any eventual court settlement. Drug prevention and addiction treatment programs still need more funding.
DeWine isn’t alone in his criticism of Yost’s proposal. Some prosecutors and attorneys who represent local governments in lawsuits have also weighed in against it, as has the County Commissioners Association, the Ohio Municipal League, the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, the Buckeye State Sheriff’s Association and the Ohio State Coroners Association.
With 22,000 drug-related deaths since 2010, the epidemic has hit nearly every community in Ohio.
Overdose deaths began to rise at a time when the amount of local government funding was being reduced by the state.
As a result, municipalities were forced to absorb much of the extra cost of drug problems, including increased jail, court and law enforcement expenses, and a rising need for drug treatment and foster care services. It’s understandable why many brought action against drug makers.
But Yost and other states’ attorneys general who have filed suits believe it’s better to pursue claims for all residents, even as many cities and counties have sued separately. In a July letter to the Cleveland judge overseeing the consolidated opioid cases, Yost maintained that a state should have the ability to negotiate on behalf of everybody and dole out settlement money accordingly.
Last Friday, Yost took it a step further, asking a federal appeals judge to halt or delay the class-action cases in Cleveland. If Yost’s request is approved, it would strike another blow to local governments’ home rule authority.
Some local governments may have opted to bring their own lawsuits due to problems with a massive tobacco settlement brokered in the late 1990s. Many states, including Ohio, put the billions of dollars in settlement payouts in their general funds. In this state and some others, money was spent in ways that had nothing to do with addressing tobacco problems.
Whatever money comes to Ohio in opioid settlements, the largest share should be returned to the cities and counties which continue to address drug problems and addiction issues, not kept in Columbus and used for other state government purposes.
Under Yost’s plan, most of any settlement money would be left in the hands of lawmakers to decide how much and where it should be allocated. That idea didn’t work with tobacco, and there no reason to believe it would be any different with opioids.