The Suffolk County Legislature voted Monday to accept more than $21.5 million from four major pharmacy chains and one opioid manufacturer to settle a lawsuit alleging the companies fueled the opioid epidemic on Long Island. The Nassau Legislature later gave preliminary approval to similar-sized settlements totaling $28.3 million.
The 18-member Suffolk County Legislature approved settlements Monday morning from the pharmacies — Rite Aid, CVS, Walmart and Walgreens — and the manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson. Nassau's Finance and Rules Committees approved settlements Monday evening with the same companies, and the full 19-member Nassau County Legislature is expected to review the agreements at its next meeting on Aug. 2.
The settlements are part of landmark legal challenges designed to hold drug providers and manufacturers accountable for the opioid addiction crisis that has ravaged families and communities.
The state Attorney General's Office, along with Nassau and Suffolk counties, are in state court in Suffolk County suing manufacturers and pharmacy chains for their role in the crisis. The companies say they have followed regulations and are not responsible for the crisis.
Johnson & Johnson dropped out of that trial days before it was set to begin by agreeing to a $230 million settlement. The company said in a statement that its settlement was not an admission of guilt or liability and that the amount it will pay New York is prorated from the figure it would pay the state under a nationwide settlement structure. The company also said it stopped selling prescription pain medication in 2020.
In a special legislative session in Hauppauge, Suffolk lawmakers likened the historic moment to settlements paid out by tobacco companies after more than a half century of litigation by victims of lung cancer and their families.
Suffolk Presiding Officer Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue) said the county has spent big sums treating opioid abuse.
"Even more important is that we finally are changing the dynamic," said Calarco, who lauded the county attorney’s office as well as outside litigators.
Calarco said "pharmacies had a responsibility to track the distribution of these medications carefully and their failure to do so furthered the impact of this crisis by allowing individuals to pharmacy shop to obtain more of these powerful drugs."
The settlement totals from pharmacy chains to Suffolk are as follows:
$1.5 million from Rite Aid
$3.5 million from CVS
$3,062,500 from Walmart
$5 million from Walgreens
Between $8.4 million and $19.8 million from Johnson & Johnson, over 10 years.
The Nassau County Legislature's finance and rules committees approved payments of identical amounts to the four pharmacies. But Nassau is to receive $15.3 million from Johnson & Johnson, according to legislative documents.
State Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement to Newsday: "The opioid epidemic has wreaked havoc on countless communities across Long Island and throughout New York state, leaving tens of thousands addicted to dangerous and deadly opioids."
James, who called Nassau and Suffolk "among the worst hit," said the agreements ensure "that tens of millions of dollars will be allocated to Long Island alone for abatement. These funds will go directly toward prevention and recovery programs — funding hospital beds and other treatment options across Long Island and elsewhere throughout the state."
Also Monday, Nassau's health and social services committee approved creation of a special revenue fund for settlement dollars, which would be used to pay for prevention and treatment programs.
Legis. Rose Marie Walker (R-Hicksville), the committee's chairwoman, said the funding stream is critical after the coronavirus pandemic contributed to a spike in opioid abuse after several years of declines.
"We've really had a setback in fighting the opioid epidemic," she said. By putting the funds into a designated account, the county will be able to immediately address the health crisis. "It was very important to set up this designated revenue source, so once these settlements are done …[funds] go right into" key programs.
Suffolk has not approved a special revenue fund, but Calarco said the money will be carefully appropriated during the legislative budget process.
Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Port Jefferson) expressed concern that discussions about how to use the settlement money had not yet occurred. She said it was her hope "that we use these dollars for treatment." But she added, "there’s no magic wand that ends the suffering of our families and communities."