Editorials, Opinion

Small settlements don’t really punish opioid companies

Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is always so proud to show off his pitiful little opioid settlements, like a little kid showing off his lunchroom trade but who doesn’t realize he got the worse end of the deal.

His latest “victory” is a $26 million settlement with Endo Health Solutions — of which approximately $4.75 million will go to attorney fees (if we calculated correctly) and only 24.5% of the remaining amount, or about $5.2 million, will be shared among all of West Virginia’s counties and cities. The bulk of the money ($15.4 million) is slated for Morrisey’s recently announced West Virginia First Foundation, which is supposedly a nonprofit geared toward opioid mitigation strategies.

Morrisey has a history of settling opioid lawsuits for pennies on the dollar. According to Bloomberg Law, between 2016 and 2020, Morrisey settled 13 different opioid-related lawsuits for a grand total of $84 million — $72 million of which came from the settlements with Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and McKesson Corp. For perspective, two Ohio counties filed suits against Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and McKesson Corp and won $215 million to share, just the two of them.

This shouldn’t be surprising considering Morrisey spent years as a lawyer and lobbyist for pharmaceutical companies, and they (or their contracted law firms) donated generously to his last campaign. According to Bloomberg Law, Morrisey received “more than $320,000 in donations from pharmaceutical companies, pharmacies and lobbyists and law firms that count pharmaceutical companies among their clients. That includes $92,000 directly from pharmaceutical companies and more than $88,000 from the firms that he worked for prior to his current role,” leading up the 2020 election.

Morrisey defends his settlements by saying he gets the money for West Virginia now, instead of after decades of litigation. That may be true, but when 3,000-some local governments are trying to split $5 million, the money amounts to virtually nothing. At that point, it would be worth it to wait longer in order to get enough money to do something to combat the everyday impacts of the opioid crisis in our towns.

But more than that, when settlements are a mere fraction of a company’s yearly profits, the company isn’t incentivized to stop the bad behavior. Let’s use Endo as an example.

Endo made $772 million in the third quarter of 2021; it spent $49 million of that revenue on operational costs. In total, Endo made $723 million in profit in a single quarter. Even if we seriously lowball profits to $500 million per quarter, the company still makes $2 billion a year. The company won’t even notice the $26 million from Morrisey’s settlement is gone from its coffers.

That said, Endo’s is a little different from Morrisey’s usual settlements. This one includes extra terms, such as the company won’t make false or misleading claims about opioids or any opioid products.

However, most settlements include a refusal to admit wrongdoing or liability. Which means the legal battle ends with only the money. And when the money is a pittance of an opioid company’s profits, it has no incentive to stop pushing harmful, addictive drugs on our communities.

And at the end of the day, it is we — the people with substance use disorder and the family, friends and neighbors who live with them — who pay the highest price.