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Native American tribes announce $590 million settlement framework with opioid maker J&J and distributors


By Elizabeth Joseph, CNN

Native American tribes, who have “suffered some of the worst consequences of the opioid epidemic of any population in the United States,” have reached a settlement in principle with Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals and three drug distributors, attorneys representing the tribes said Tuesday.

The settlement — which has been agreed to in principle, but still requires finalization — says the pharmaceutical giant will pay $150 million to tribal communities over two years.

The distributors — AmerisourceBergen Corp., McKesson Corp., and Cardinal Health, Inc. — will pay nearly $440 million over the course of seven years, according to documents filed in US District Court Northern District of Ohio.

The tribal governments have spent a considerable amount of tribal funds to cover the costs of the epidemic, the attorneys wrote, “including increased costs for health care, social services, child welfare, law enforcement and other government services.”

The approximate $590 million settlement is separate from a previously announced settlement of more $75 million between the Cherokee Nation and the drug distributors, and all “federally recognized Tribes will be eligible to participate in both settlements regardless of whether the Tribe has previously filed suit against the Settling Defendants,” according to Tuesday’s announcement.

“American Indians have suffered the highest per capita rate of opioid overdose,” Chairman Douglas Yankton of the Spirit Lake Nation in North Dakota said in a statement issued by the attorneys. “Given this, the dollars that will flow to Tribes under this initial settlement will help fund crucial, on-reservation, culturally appropriate opioid treatment services.”

Despite being just over 1% of the population, Native Americans’ rate of overdose deaths from opioids is above the national average, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 2000-2016. The number of Native Americans dying from drug doses has been steadily increasing for at least the past decade, CDC data shows.

Overall, opioids continue to be the driving cause of fatal drug overdoses in the US.

Last year saw a record high of drug overdose deaths, with more than 100,000 people dying from April 2020 to April 2021, according to provisional data published in November by the CDC. It was a 28.5% spike compared to the same period a year earlier and nearly doubling over the past five years.

Approximately 70% of the 574 federally recognized tribes and about 85% of all tribal citizens are represented by the court-appointed legal team — referred to in court documents as the Tribal Leadership Committee (TLC).

Following Tuesday’s announcement of the settlement framework, the TLC will move to finalize the agreement once it hears back from individual tribal communities and reach a “benchmark,” attorney Timothy Purdon, partner at Robins Kaplan LLC, one of eight law firms representing the TLC, told CNN.

“When we reach 95% of the litigating tribes and 14 of the 17 largest non-litigating tribes, that establishes the effective date to move forward in finalizing the settlement terms,” he said.

CNN has reached out to Janssen, AmerisourceBergen Corp., McKesson Corp., and Cardinal Health, Inc. for additional comment and context.

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