CLEVELAND: Four large drug companies reached a last-minute $260 million legal settlement over their role in the US opioid addiction epidemic, striking a deal with two Ohio counties to avert the first federal trial over the crisis.

Drug distributors Ameri­sourceBergen Corp, Cardi­nal Health Inc and McKesson Corp will contribute $215m towards the settlement, according to Hunter Shkolnik, an attorney for the counties.

Israel-based drugmaker Teva Pharmaceutical Industries is paying $20m in cash and will contribute $25m worth of Suboxone, an opioid addiction treatment, according to Shkolnik.

The deal settles claims brought by Ohio’s Cuya­hoga and Summit counties, which had accused the companies of fuelling a nationwide opioid crisis. Some 400,000 US overdose deaths between 1997 and 2017 were linked to opioids, ac­­cording to government data.

The trial was to be a so-called bellwether, or test trial, that was meant to help shape a broader settlement of some 2,600 lawsuits pending over the toll opioids have taken on local communities and the nation.

Late on Friday, talks collapsed that were aimed at reaching a $48 billion global settlement of all opioid litigation against the same defendants.

The judge overseeing the Ohio case, Dan Polster, urg­ed the parties to continue to work towards a broader deal.

“I did not encourage a settlement of this case only,” Polster said in court.

Lawyers representing the local governments said in a statement that the litigation had revealed the country’s pharmacy system “has played a greater role in the opioid epidemic than previously realised”.

The lawsuits accuse drug makers of overstating the benefits of opioids while downplaying the risks. Dist­­­ributors allegedly fail­­ed to flag and halt a rising tide of suspicious orders, shipping vast amounts of the pills across the country.

Published in Dawn, October 22nd, 2019