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Local governments in Ohio seeking unity in opioid litigation

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Dozens of Ohio local government leaders gathered privately in Columbus Tuesday to discuss how to divide millions of dollars from a prospective opioid settlement, potentially positioning them to enter settlement talks with drugmakers as a united front.

About 75 mayors, county commissioners and others from around the state attended the meeting, organized by the parties’ lawyers. Representatives of Gov. Mike DeWine and Attorney General Dave Yost, both Republicans, also attended.

Keary McCarthy, executive director of the Ohio Mayors Alliance, which had members in attendance, said it was one in a series of meetings where spending priorities and other issues are being discussed.

“The goal is to try to figure out a way to bring up the local governments and their cases together, combined with the state, to talk about a unified settlement,” he said. “There’s a little bit more work to be done to really understand the way we come together as a state.”

Opioids, including both powerful prescription painkillers and illegal drugs such as heroin and illicit fentanyl, have been linked to more than 430,000 deaths in the U.S. since 2000. The drug industry is facing about 3,000 lawsuits over the toll of the drugs, including from 49 states and thousands of municipal, county and Native American tribal governments.

The sprawling litigation is among the most complex ever in the U.S.

One of the complications: There have been signs of discord between state and local governments across the country about how any settlements would be divided among them. Local governments say they’ve paid a lot of the financial price with extra ambulance runs and jail costs. States say they could set up bigger treatment and prevention programs.

Last fall, for instance, a group of state attorneys general announced they had a framework for a settlement worth about $48 billion in cash, treatment drugs and services over time from three drug distribution companies and two manufacturers. But lawyers representing local governments — and some of the states — suing the industry were dismissive of the plan, saying companies should pay more.

Those talks have continued, but no agreements have been announced.

An agreement among state and local officials in Ohio on how to divide settlement proceeds would be the first of its kind across the U.S. And it might smooth the path toward a settlement with entities in the state, which has been among the hardest hit by opioids. But such an agreement would not mean that companies have agreed to settle in Ohio.

So far in the cases, settlements have come on the eve of scheduled trials. An opioid trial in Oklahoma last year ended up with just one defendant — drugmaker Johnson & Johnson — after other companies settled. Another one on claims from the Ohio counties of Cuyahoga and Summit didn’t happen at all after a series of settlements, including some reached just hours before opening statements were to begin.

The next trial over opioids is scheduled to start March 20 in Central Islip, New York. It involves claims from the state of New York and the counties of Nassau and Suffolk.

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Geoff Mulvihill is based in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

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This story has been corrected to show the parties’ lawyers, not the Ohio Mayors Alliance, organized the event.

The Associated Press