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The Statehouse News Bureau provides educational, comprehensive coverage of legislation, elections, issues and other activities surrounding the Statehouse to Ohio's public radio and television stations.

Ohio Community Leaders Discuss Signing On To Billion-Dollar Opioid Deal

[Dan Konik /  Statehouse News Bureau]

Community leaders around Ohio are weighing whether to sign on to the $26 billion opioid settlement with three drug distributors and a manufacturer. They’re going over the specifics as they consider their final decisions, which could bring big money but some fear could also be costly.

Ohio stands to get a good-sized chunk of the settlementbetween some 4,000 entities and distributors McKesson, AmerisourceBergen and Ohio-based Cardinal Health, along with drug maker Johnson & Johnson.

“It'll be about a billion dollars. That's serious money," said Republican Attorney General Dave Yost.

Yost said the distributors will pay a total of $21 billion over 17 years, with J&J paying up to $5 billion. A substantial portion of the money must go to opioid treatment and addiction prevention.

The next step is for states and communities to decide whether to sign on, since the payout amounts from those four companies depend on the number of entities that agree to take the money and halt future legal action. And the companies can walk away from the deal or pay a lot less money if they aren’t happy with the number of states and communities that have agreed.

City and county leaders from around the state got together a few days after the settlement was announced to talk about it.

Dayton was one of the first cities in the country to sue over the opioid crisis, going after more than a dozen pharmaceutical companies, distributors and pain specialists. At that time in 2017, Montgomery County led the nation in opioid deaths. So getting to this point is a big deal for mayor Nan Whaley.

But she’s still cautious.

“From what we heard, high level, it sounds pretty good about trying to get everybody to come together but we just have to make sure," Whaley said. "These are people who have done a pretty big disservice to our communities and so until we see it in writing, we’re not going to say yes, we’re going to sign on.”

Last year Yost and Gov. Mike DeWine announced that local governments had agreedthat 55% of the money would go to the statewide One Ohio foundation, 30% would go to local recovery programs, and 15% to the state.

Whaley, a Democrat running for governor next year, said she wants more details about the foundation – for instance, who will be on the board and how it will be regulated.

Republican Shelby County Commissioner Julie Ehmann was at that meeting after the settlement was announced, and she likes the position the deal puts Ohio in.

“We were approached with a formula that would put Ohio in front of other states in the country when they rolled out this national plan. So there’s some hoops to jump through and they need to get a lot of buy in from other counties and municipalities," Ehmann said. "So they do know that there’s a bar that’s been set kind of high for us to kind of jump in line ahead of the rest.”

Findlay Mayor Christina Muryn, also a Republican, said it’s still early, but she thinks her city will sign on and will encourage other leaders to join too.

Muryn said this one-time money will allow communities to create investments that can be sustained with operating funds, and there’s a broad definition of what the money can be spent on.

“We’re trying to provide flexibility because every community has slightly different needs and had a slightly different impact, but overall want to make sure the money is going for its intended purpose," Muryn said. "And I believe that the proposal does do that.”

Hanging over the discussions is what happened after the huge settlement between 46 states and major tobacco companies in 1998.

Ohio was supposed to get $10 billion. Much of it was diverted to a budget deficit, school construction and a stimulus package, and in 2007 the state traded $8 billion in future payments for a one-time check of $5 billion. So within ten years, Ohio was left with nearly no money from the tobacco settlement for anti-smoking efforts.

And Ohio wasn’t the only state – among the projects that were funded with tobacco settlement money were a golf course sprinkler system in New York, renovation of shipping docks in Alaska, and a tobacco museum in North Carolina.

Yost said that One Ohio agreement will guarantee the money will go dealing with the past damage and future issues caused by opioids.

But many officials agree with Whaley: they want to ensure the companies are being held accountable, and they want to know the money won’t be used to plug budget holes or special projects.

“We’ve heard this – we want to see it," Whaley said.

Ehmann said she’s also waiting to hear more details, but adds that being too cautious could be costly.

“The longer we delay, the longer the crisis just continues and the more people that suffer," Ehmann said.

The companies don’t admit to wrongdoing in the settlement.

States have 30 days to decide whether to sign onto it. Local governments have five months after that.

The Ohio Department of Health reports 23,743 people died of opioid overdoses between 2010 and 2019. The worst year for deadly opioid overdoses was 2017, when 4,162 people died - that's more than 11 people a day. The CDC estimates that record will broken when the final numbers are tabulated for 2020.

Copyright 2021 The Statehouse News Bureau. To see more, visit The Statehouse News Bureau.