FILE – In this Jan. 11, 2018, file photo, U.S. District Judge Dan Polster poses for a portrait in his office in Cleveland. Polster is holding a hearing Tuesday, June 25, 2019, in Cleveland on a plan pitched by lawyers for local governments on distributing money to nearly 25,000 municipal and county governments. The plan would take effect if companies that make and distribute the powerful prescription painkillers agree to one or more legal settlements. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)

Tension brews between cities, states over opioid lawsuits

June 25, 2019 - 9:17 am

CLEVELAND (AP) — Tension is emerging between lawyers representing state and local governments over the path forward in a set of lawsuits seeking to hold the drug industry accountable for the toll of the nation's opioid crisis.

A federal judge scheduled a hearing Tuesday in Cleveland on a plan pitched by for lawyers for local governments on distributing money to nearly 25,000 municipal and county governments across the country. The plan would take effect if companies that make and distribute the powerful prescription painkillers agree to one or more legal settlements.

Attorneys general for most states said Monday in a pair of letters to Judge Dan Polster that such an arrangement could hurt their ability to reach a national settlement.

One of the letters warned that the deal would give communities elsewhere "functional veto power" over any settlement a state reached. The attorneys general said that is not acceptable for states.

Drug distribution companies and pharmacies are opposing the arrangement. They say it would make a settlement impractical and they raised concerns about whether the proposal is legal.

Drug makers haven't raised such concerns yet. Purdue Pharma, the company that makes OxyContin, put out a statement that didn't take a side in the issue.

"The company is committed to working with all parties toward a resolution that helps bring needed solutions to communities and states to address this public health crisis," Purdue officials said.

Purdue has said it's considering declaring bankruptcy.

Judge Dan Polster, based in Cleveland, is presiding over most of the more than 2,000 lawsuits filed by local and tribal governments over opioids.

Forty-eight states have also taken legal action against at least one drug firm, but all but one of their claims are being handled in state courts.

Still, Polster has invited state governments to be part of settlement negotiations. The Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention found opioids, including prescription drugs and illicit versions such as heroin and fentanyl, played a role in nearly 48,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2017 — making them the nation's leading cause of accidental death.

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Mulvihill reported from Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

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