Washington seeks over $38 billion from opioid distributors

Having rejected a half-billion-dollar settlement offer, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is taking the state’s case against the nation’s three biggest drug distributors to trial Monday, saying they must be held accountable for their role in the opioid crisis.

But his gamble isn’t without risk, as a loss by three California counties in a similar case this month demonstrates.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter Wilson issued a tentative ruling Nov. 1 that the counties, plus the city of Oakland, had not proven the pharmaceutical companies used deceptive marketing to increase unnecessary opioid prescriptions and create a public nuisance.

In an email, Ferguson stressed that the relevant Washington laws differ from California’s and called the cases "apples and oranges."

"There is always uncertainty when you take a case to trial," he said. "However, we feel confident in the strength of our case."

The attorney general’s office sued McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc. and AmerisourceBergen Corp. in 2019, alleging they made billions off the opioid epidemic by shipping huge amounts of prescription painkillers into the state even when they knew or should have known those drugs were likely to find their way to drug dealers and people suffering from addiction.

In a trial that begins Monday in King County Superior Court in Seattle, Ferguson is seeking a "transformative" payout of tens of billions of dollars from the companies to help undo the epidemic’s damage in Washington state, which includes more than 8,000 deaths from 2006 to 2017 and untold devastation to families. The state wants $38 billion to pay for treatment services, criminal justice costs, public education campaigns and other programs over a 15-year period, plus billions more in additional damages.

In July, Ferguson rejected a settlement offer of $527.5 million over 18 years as "woefully insufficient." That deal would have provided about $30 million a year for Washington and its 320 cities and counties to split. Considering inflation over the 18-year payment period, the true value of the settlement was just $303 million, Ferguson said.

The drug companies say that they cannot be blamed for epidemic; they merely supplied opioids that had been prescribed by doctors. It wasn’t their role to second-guess the prescriptions or interfere in the doctor-patient relationship, they argued in a trial brief filed this month.

Further, they argued, Washington state itself played a large role in the epidemic. In the 1990s, concerned that people in chronic pain were being undertreated, lawmakers passed the Intractable Pain Act, which made it easier to prescribe opioids.

>> RELATED: Washington joins other states in suing major opioid shippers

The attorney general’s office sued McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc. and AmerisourceBergen Corp. in 2019, alleging they made billions off the opioid epidemic by shipping huge amounts of prescription painkillers into the state even when they knew or should have known those drugs were likely to find their way to drug dealers and people suffering from addiction.

In a trial that begins Monday in King County Superior Court in Seattle, Ferguson is seeking a "transformative" payout of tens of billions of dollars from the companies to help undo the epidemic’s damage in Washington state, which includes more than 8,000 deaths from 2006 to 2017 and untold devastation to families. The state wants $38 billion to pay for treatment services, criminal justice costs, public education campaigns and other programs over a 15-year period, plus billions more in additional damages.

In July, Ferguson rejected a settlement offer of $527.5 million over 18 years as "woefully insufficient." That deal would have provided about $30 million a year for Washington and its 320 cities and counties to split. Considering inflation over the 18-year payment period, the true value of the settlement was just $303 million, Ferguson said.

The drug companies say that they cannot be blamed for epidemic; they merely supplied opioids that had been prescribed by doctors. It wasn’t their role to second-guess the prescriptions or interfere in the doctor-patient relationship, they argued in a trial brief filed this month.

Further, they argued, Washington state itself played a large role in the epidemic. In the 1990s, concerned that people in chronic pain were being undertreated, lawmakers passed the Intractable Pain Act, which made it easier to prescribe opioids.

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