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Story By John Murray
It’s taken five years, but the legal effort to hold Big Pharma accountable for its role in the opioid crisis is beginning to bear fruit in Connecticut.
In August 2017, the City of Waterbury filed a class-action lawsuit against Big Pharma for incentivizing the distribution of oxycontin with false marketing claims. The city’s bold legal move was led by Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary and was supported by 30 towns and cities. The lawsuit eventually was merged with other regional lawsuits around the state and combined into a lawsuit against Big Pharma by the Attorney General of Connecticut, William Tong.
Connecticut Attorney General William Tong
Tong traveled to Waterbury yesterday to announce that the state had received the first $11 million from a legal settlement with Johnson & Johnson, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson that will pay Connecticut $300 million over the next 18 years. This money is in addition to previous settlements Tong negotiated with other opioid manufacturers announced in 2021, and with Purdue Pharma in March 2022.
“Opioid distributors reaped massive profits while flooding our communities with deadly opioids,” Tong said. “This money is going back to communities to save lives.”
There were 70 overdose deaths last year in Waterbury, 94 in 2020, and 51 deaths so far this year.The Waterbury Fire Department deployed 870 doses of Narcan in 2021.
Mayor O’Leary landed the first blow against Big Pharma in Connecticut, and is now the chairman of the Special Committee on Opioids Settlement at the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (providing guidance on how to disperse $300 million Johnson & Johnson settlement).
The money will go directly to aid cities and towns across the state. O’Leary said. Waterbury will receive $73,000 this year, and O’Leary believes education is the first priority. The Mayor talked about the success in the 1980s and 1990s of the DARE Program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) and the need to create something similar in the elementary schools now.
“Education has to be infused with these dollars to make sure our families aware of what’s happening out there,” O’Leary said, and he told a story about a dentist prescribing two dozen opioid pills to his son after a tooth extraction (which he did not take). An emergency room doctor told O’Leary several years ago that 20 pills could trigger addiction.
Destigmatizing addiction is an important step in battling the crisis, O’Leary said. “This can impact anyone; doctors, lawyers, and it doesn’t really matter who is addicted,” O’Leary said, “we want to save lives.”
Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary has been a leader in Connecticut in holding Big Pharma legally accountable for the thousands of deaths in the state.
Launching a regional opioid abatement program, creating educational programs in the public schools, treatment centers and counseling services are all possible uses of the money heading towards Waterbury.
“I would guess that Waterbury will probably be the regional hub for different variations of treatment – methadone, Suboxone – counseling, and treatment centers,” O’Leary previously told the Observer, “but it’s a work in progress. It’s good to listen to everybody and when we get done with this, there won’t be a kid in Connecticut that doesn’t understand how dangerous opioids are.”
One of the key components of the Johnson & Johnson settlement revolved around how many of the 169 towns in Connecticut signed onboard with the agreement by a January 2nd, 2022, deadline.
“One of the biggest battles we had was to get all 169 cities and towns to sign on to this opioid allocation agreement,” Mayor O’Leary said. “It wasn’t easy, and we had to track elected officials down while they were on vacation, but we did it.”
The % of the money allocated to Connecticut was going to be determined by the amount of participation of the state’s cities and towns. If less than 95% of the communities signed onboard the settlement agreement, the payout would be $75 million less.
“We had some pushback initially from some small rural towns that said they didn’t have an opioid issue and didn’t need the money,” O’Leary said. “I told them they might not know they have an opioid issue, but they do. We had to get them onboard so we could get the entire $300 million. I didn’t want anything less. “
Joe DeLong is the executive director of Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. His organization is made up of all the elected leaders in cities and towns across Connecticut and they will be guiding the money into the communities.
Liz Fitzgerald and Christine Gagnon (pictured up top with Atty. General Tong) provided humanity and reality to Monday’s press conference. Christine lost her son Michael to an overdose, and Liz lost two sons, Matthew and Kyle.
“They fought to make sure voices of victims and survivors were heard at every step of this fight,” Atty. General Tong said. “we need to keep listening to them as we determine where these dollars are spent.
Christine Gagnon said she will will not stop her advocacy until the crisis takes a downturn. “I will not stop, and neither will Liz until we see a dent,” she said. “Because right now, it’s going in the opposite direction.”
Christine Gagnon lost her son Michael to an overdose and said settlement money should be invested in educating students on the dangers of drugs. “There is no experimenting with drugs anymore,” she said. “It’s like Russian Roulette. Your first time can kill you.”
The Big Pharma settlements are being compared to the Big Tobacco settlements of the 1990s when attorney generals around the country sued the tobacco industry and won more than $100 billion. Many critics of the settlements complain the money has made its way into state coffers and did not address issues of tobacco.
“The tobacco money was hijacked,” O’Leary said, “but with the Johnson & Johnson settlement at least 50% has to go to cities and towns, and we can make an argument for more.”
Waterbury is on the front edge of tackling the opioid crisis in the courtroom, and on the streets.
“We’re proud that we were the first to file lawsuits against the big pharmaceutical companies,” O’Leary said. “This money is going to save lives.”