CHEYENNE — Wyoming personal injury lawyer Jason Ochs spent years fighting for accountability for primary pharmaceutical distributors’ role in the opioid epidemic, and it has finally paid off.
As the state Attorney General’s office and individual municipalities enter into the OneWyo Opioid Settlement Agreement before the Jan. 2 deadline, many are set to receive a portion of the $26 billion payout from the global class-action suit.
The funds are designed to be used for mitigation, treatment, education and emergency assistance for opioid abatement. The agreed-upon settlements will also impose transformative changes on the way pharmaceutical companies conduct their business.
Within the proposed distribution plan of the $52 million included in the OneWyo Opioid Settlement Agreement, the state will receive 35 percent of the funding, and cities, towns and counties will receive the remaining 65 percent. This will go into general fund accounts, but must be earmarked for specific uses.
Ochs represents the cities of Cheyenne, Casper, Rock Springs, Riverton and Carbon County, with the latter being the first to enter into litigation. He said due to their incorporation of private counsel and lawsuits on the behalf of the local governments, Wyoming received double the amount it could have acquired.
“I think they deserve a lot of credit, because they stuck their necks out, they engaged in something that was brand new,” he said. “This had never been done before.”
The historic case resulted in a settlement agreement with two separate payouts. Major pharmaceutical distributors McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen are responsible for $18 billion over the course of 18 years, and Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson, will disburse $8 billion over 10 years.
According to Ochs, other local governments will likely receive an additional payment from Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Oxycontin and the main target of the lawsuit. The company went bankrupt during the litigation process, and now a bankruptcy court will determine the level of compensation it will be responsible for.
This is separate from the original case, as the companies did not see their day in the courtroom for the national prescription opiate litigation since a settlement agreement was reached.
Nonetheless, Ochs explained the twofold argument brought forward by plaintiffs. They contended opioid manufacturers allegedly created a public nuisance through negligence, because they were well aware of how addictive the drugs were without disclosing the full effects. Distributors are also obligated to file suspicious activity reports if they saw large amounts of opioids going into certain jurisdictions, and allegedly they ignored their responsibilities in order to maximize profits.
He said he is conflicted in his feelings toward the out-of-court resolution. It’s been a long process to get to this point, and local governments will receive funding as early as next year, but the battle isn’t over. He could see it going all the way to the Supreme Court, which would risk the entire litigation disappearing.
“Anytime we can bring money in to start, hopefully, curtailing this issue is a good thing,” he said. “But the other side of me is frustrated because I don’t know if the defendants are paying enough.”
Ochs started his journey leading up to this moment nearly four years ago, after a close friend of his lost his son to an opioid overdose. The son had received a 30-day prescription of OxyContin following a shoulder surgery, but medical literature suggests any use of the drug for longer than five or six days can lead to an addiction.
“He was 19 years old, had the whole world ahead of him, and died in his sleep from an overdose,” he said. “I just saw the way that impacted the family. I started meeting, through his father, other parents who had the same story.”
Although this has been a consistent issue across the nation, the latest data available showed Wyoming providers wrote 57.1 opioid prescriptions for every 100 persons, compared to the national average of 51.4 prescriptions, according to the CDC.
The Wyoming Department of Health also recorded the deaths of 65 people within the state who died from opioid drug overdose in 2020.
Ochs and government officials said the settlement agreement is a step in the right direction to address those impacts. Even the language within the document holds pharmaceutical companies responsible. It states, “Whereas, Pharmaceutical Supply Chain Participants have contributed to the opioid epidemic, which has, in turn, harmed the people and communities in the state of Wyoming.”
Next year, participating local governments will receive their allocated proportions to advance efforts to undo the damage.
Laramie County is currently set to receive the largest portion at 15.59 percent, which was based on population size and the significant established ways they provide abatement assistance. Commissioner Gunnar Malm confirmed the county entered and signed into the agreement on Dec. 21. There is a possibility the county will receive more than allotted if not every community joins in the settlement.
“I know that addiction is a very real and deadly problem in our community,” said Malm. “But I do know that recovery is possible. I know that personally. And so, I look forward to being able to hopefully utilize these funds to restore people’s lives and give them a chance at a bonus life.”
The next largest percentages of localized shares will go to Natrona County at 7.9 percent, Sweetwater County at 7.6 percent and the city of Casper at 7.35 percent. Cities and towns had the opportunity to join in on the settlement outside of their counties, which allocates funds specifically to their local government body.
Cheyenne was a city that took on a private lawsuit with Ochs Law Firm P.C. and authorized its representation to enter into the agreement on Dec. 28. The City Council also approved a resolution to allow Mayor Patrick Collins to execute settlement participation forms for the Janssen settlement. The share includes 1.23 percent, which comes out to be $414,740 over the next 18 years.
“It’s to punish those who did it,” said Collins, “but also to make sure we use those dollars for good later.”