As retribution for lives lost due to drug overdoses, McHenry County could receive $3.41 million as part of a nationwide negotiated settlement of a 2017 lawsuit filed against large opioid manufacturers and distributers, McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally said in a news release Tuesday.
The money is the county’s portion of a global $26 billion settlement agreed to in July by opioid manufacturer Janssen Pharmaceutical, a biotechnology subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, and the “Big Three” drug distributors, McKesson Corp., AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health, according to a statement from the law firm Simmons Hanly Conroy.
Simmons Hanly Conroy represents thousands of jurisdictions across the country in this ongoing lawsuit. Meyers & Flowers was brought in to help represent the Illinois counties in the suit, including McHenry County.
“No amount of money will ever be sufficient to reconcile the absolute desolation these companies have wrought in McHenry County and throughout the country,” Kenneally said in a statement. “This is, however, a first step to holding accountable these loathsome industries that put self-serving deception over medical truth and corporate profit over human life.”
The settlement will directly support state and local efforts to make meaningful progress in addressing the opioid crisis in the U.S., Michael Ullmann, a Johnson & Johnson executive vice president and the company’s general counsel, said in a statement posted on the company’s website in July.
“We recognize the opioid crisis is a tremendously complex public health issue, and we have deep sympathy for everyone affected,” Ullmann said.
Johnson & Johnson’s contribution of up to $5 billion to the settlement, however, is not an admission of guilt. The company’s actions in marketing and promoting any prescription opioids were “appropriate and responsible,” Ullmann said.
The other companies named in the settlement did not respond to requests for comment.
The litigation is ongoing against remaining defendants, including pharmaceutical companies Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Allergan and Endo International, as well as retail pharmacies CVS, Walgreens and Walmart, said Sarah Burns, a shareholder with Simmons Hanly Conroy who spearheaded the firm’s Illinois opioid litigation.
Communities across the country have until Jan. 26 to sign on for the opioid settlement, which was extended from Jan. 2 due to COVID-19 and other factors, Burns said.
Attorneys negotiated the settlement on behalf of more than 3,000 communities composing the federal opioid litigation, according to a July post on the Simmons Hanly Conroy website.
Under the terms of the settlement, the proceeds are to be used by local communities “to combat the devastating effects of the opioid crisis by establishing critical intervention programs, as well as much-needed treatment, education and recovery services,” according to the firm’s post.
“McHenry County’s agreement to the settlement represents an important milestone as counties across Illinois continue to join by the Jan. 26 deadline,” Burns said this week in an email. “But important work remains to be done, and the process will take some time.
“Decades of opioid manufacturers, distributors and dispensers choosing to put profits ahead of health and safety is what caused and perpetuated this public health crisis. Taxpayers and communities were forced to bear the costs of the crisis, which has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and drained billions from local economies. It is going to take a multifaceted approach over decades to fully recover. But this settlement is a much-needed start on that long road to recovery.”
Chris Reed, president of New Directions Addiction Recovery Services in Woodstock, said it is “great news” that the county will be receiving a portion of the settlement.
“It is my hope that the funds will be used to provide treatment resources and continued support for those affected by opioid addiction,” said Reed, who also founded the sober bar The Other Side in Crystal Lake in 2013. “There are so many people that do not have access to proper care due to health insurance or other financial barriers.”
Reed, who has been in recovery from his own substance use disorder since 2009, said he would like to see a fund established for county residents to help pay for treatment, medications, transportation and recovery housing costs.
“At the end of the day, the amount of the settlement could never truly reflect the actual cost of the damages in our community, primarily because that cost was the lives of many people, but something is better than nothing, I suppose,” he said.
Reed praised Kenneally for standing up against big pharmaceutical companies and holding them accountable for the negative impact they created. The funds will strengthen the county’s existing efforts in providing recovery resources, Reed said.
Those efforts include multiple sober living homes; a 35-bed peer recovery campus in Woodstock; The Way Out amnesty programs through local police departments; prescription dropboxes; and access to naloxone, testing strips and other harm reduction tools.
These efforts and others through the McHenry County Mental Health Board have resulted in reducing the number of overdose deaths in recent years, Reed said.
In 2017, when McHenry County joined the lawsuit, 73 deaths due to opioid overdose were recorded, according to the McHenry County Department of Health. That number fell to 49 in 2018 and 31 in 2019. A slight rebound was seen in 2020 to 47, and as of Jan. 5, the number of deaths recorded for last year was 32, according to the health department.
“It would be in our best interest as a community to recognize the impact these efforts have had and use these funds to continue to reinvest in lifesaving recovery resources,” Reed said.
McHenry County and many of the larger counties signed on to the settlement near the end of December, said Norm Vinton, chief of the civil division in McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office.
The amount each county receives was based on how large the county is and an estimation of the damages each county incurred due to the opioid epidemic, Vinton said. While McHenry County’s portion of the overall settlement was about 2.4% of the entire settlement, Cook County’s settlement was about 40% of the total.
Vinton said county officials are aware the settlement is not yet “final,” but they said they are confident the deal will move forward based on the participation so far.
“I believe [Kenneally] is very happy we are able to bring some of that money back to this county to try and fight what has been a terrible epidemic,” Vinton said.
Attorney fees will be paid for by the defendants named in the lawsuit, not county taxpayers, Vinton said. The money is expected to be available to the county by the middle of the year.