How the $48B opioid settlement could help or hurt local municipalities

Opioid lawsuits and how they affect the Wilmington area
Updated: Oct. 21, 2019 at 6:17 PM EDT
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NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - Wilmington has been called the ‘opioid capital of the world.'

The city, county, and region have been working to combat this epidemic for years. New Hanover County was the first county in the state to join a lawsuit looking to hold major drug companies accountable.

“Its origins stem from the understated effects of the addiction quality of the pills and the overstated effects of the pain management the pills were meant to address. You conflate that over the course of years, and years, and years and hundreds of thousands of people die,” said New Hanover County Commissioner Woody White.

White and Mayor Bill Saffo were among five representatives to speak to the federal judge presiding over the case in Cleveland, OH on Friday.

[ Wilmington mayor, city attorney take part in opioid lawsuit discussions in Ohio ]

“I said ‘judge, good morning. I represent 225,000 citizens of New Hanover County with Wilmington being the largest municipality and we have the dubious distinction of being the opioid capital of the world.’ I said, ‘it’s awful for economic development and tourism but much worse, we’ve watched as a lot of our loved ones, neighbors, and friends have died and suffered through this,’” White said.

“One of the reasons we were called, me and Commissioner White to go to Ohio to talk in US district court about this particular issue was specifically to ask that the money be given to the cities and counties that are footing the bill, that are taking the brunt of this opioid epidemic,” Saffo said, explaining that Wilmington is getting very little from the federal government, if anything.

Saffo said the state has stepped up with the STOP Act and the response team that was funded, but citizens are feeling the impacts.

Monday morning, North Carolina was among four states that have reached a multi-billion dollar settlement with five major drug companies over its roles in the nationwide opioid epidemic.

“I think this morning’s sentiment was a very good precursor to what we might see down the road and I think because it settled today it’s going to be sooner rather than later that we hear something,” White said.

The settlement reached this morning allocated $22.25 billion in cash and $26 billion in treatment drugs.

"The important thing is we get the money that we secure allocated across our state in the most rational and effective way possible, “ said North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein. "The best way to do that is to have a plan that is statewide in nature but where the money is spent at the local level where it can make a difference in individual people’s lives. That is the proposed structure of this deal and I’m optimistic the cities and counties are going to be strong supporters of it.”

But White wants to see settlement money go directly to cities and municipalities.

“It’s really inflicted a lot of cost on local governments and that’s what’s so interesting about the counties and the cities and Indian Nations by the way going to court and sort of pitting local government against state government because at the last minute the attorneys general of some of these states are coming in and doing good things and raising awareness and trying to fight their case but also putting local municipalities on the back burner, and we’re not very appreciative of that," White said.

He said over the past few years the county has used taxpayer money to fund programs and help address the crisis.

"With these lawsuits, we hope to be able to re-coop some of those monies that we’ve spent and are going to have to spend over the next decade or more,” White said.

Saffo is hoping money from any kind of settlement be directed to the places in the state that are providing the resources and providing the treatment instead of going to the legislature.

“The federal judge agreed with us that he felt that there should be an overseer of that program at the federal level," said Saffo, explaining the judge would like officials at the municipal levels to work together on a process to ensure the money is distributed to areas where it’s needed and will make an impact. “If they can’t come to an agreement, then the federal overseer of that program will then make that determination for the cities and the counties and the state of North Carolina.”

White says he directly asked the judge presiding over the case to think of it as a social problem, not a political one.

“If we resolve this on a political basis, and we put the monies in the various states and in the political apparatuses on those states then the legislatures start getting their hands on it and the elected politicians, attorneys generals and everyone else, it’s very fragmented, it’s not uniform," he said.

Saffo said the judge does sees this as a public health epidemic.

“We all agree with that and we need to get the money to the communities and to the cities that are providing the resources and help needed to stem this tide," Saffo said.

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