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Corporate payouts in the opioid crisis are being finalized

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Over the past two decades, the opioid crisis has been linked to more than 500,000 deaths in the U.S. And soon final settlements are expected with some of the biggest corporations accused of fueling the problem. Those settlements are expected to be worth roughly $32 billion and include controversial provisions, which we'll talk about. But the money could help a lot of people and communities struggling with addiction.

NPR's Brian Mann is our addiction correspondent, and he joins me this morning. Hey, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Thirty-two billion dollars - I mean, that's objectively a lot of money. What kind of difference can it make, though?

MANN: Well, yeah. I think this is a game changer. Under the deals being finalized, the way they're structured, this money would be paid out over time over the next couple decades. So that means a new steady stream of funding for things like drug treatment and harm reduction programs. And that's going to save lives at a time when drug overdoses are continuing to kill record numbers of Americans. These numbers just keep rising. The sad part is, it's important to say, that experts tell me this is not nearly enough money. Thirty-two billion sounds like a lot, but it's a fraction of the cost of tackling the opioid epidemic. Taxpayers already carrying most of the burden here, paying for rehab programs, foster care and law enforcement. And that's not going to change because of these settlements.

MARTIN: Just remind us what these companies are accused of.

MANN: So opioid medications became big business - OxyContin, but lots of other types of opioids as well. And so drug-makers like Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson and then drug wholesalers like Cardinal Health and McKesson made huge profits selling these products. They're accused of pushing the use of these highly addictive pain pills more aggressively than made medical sense, even as addiction rates rose. And they're also accused of not having enough safeguards in place to keep these products from being abused or diverted for sale on the street on black markets. It's important to say, in all of this, the companies deny any wrongdoing.

MARTIN: And which companies are close to deals right now?

MANN: So let's talk about two major deals that appear close to the finish line. One involves Purdue Pharma and its owners, members of the Sackler family. You'll remember they reached a deal last year worth about $4.5 billion, but a federal judge threw that out. Too many states and the U.S. Justice Department objected to a provision granting the Sackler immunity from future lawsuits. So closed-door talks quickly got underway again to try to get everyone on board with a new deal. And the big news now is the mediator is saying publicly the Sacklers have sweetened their offer. They're offering a total payout of roughly $6 billion. The mediator says there's been significant progress getting everyone on board, but they're not quite there yet.

MARTIN: So the Sacklers are offering more money. But have they changed their position on insisting that they be protected from future opioid lawsuits?

MANN: No. The Sacklers haven't budged from that demand, and that's why they need to get everybody on board. If this deal is finalized, they'll be sheltered from any future opioid lawsuits. We'll see if they get all the states to agree to that. One interesting development, Rachel, is that there are now growing calls, including from a group of U.S. senators - bipartisan senators - calling for criminal investigations into the Sacklers' role here. So far, no state or federal prosecutor has taken on that fight. And here again, important to say, the Sacklers deny any wrongdoing.

MARTIN: So that's Purdue Pharma. You said there were two major opioid deals close to being finalized. What's the second one?

MANN: Yeah. The other, actually, I expect to come sooner and to be bigger. Three huge drug distributors, AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health and McKesson, along with Johnson & Johnson, have agreed in principle to pay roughly $26 billion to settle opioid claims. That deal could come as early as Friday.

MARTIN: And there are still civil trials involving pharmacies, right?

MANN: Yeah, that's right - Walmart, CVS, Walgreens. A lot more of this litigation still to come. So while these settlements are big, the sort of resolution of this opioid crisis in courts will go on.

MARTIN: NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann - thank you so much, Brian.

MANN: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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