Regional governments discuss pooling opioid settlements

By Emma Mansfield

Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County officials are discussing the possibility of pooling the money they receive from settlements of lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies, drug manufacturers and others who distributed opioids that destroyed the lives of people living in the communities.

“Putting the money we have together, we’d be more effective at dealing with some of the impacts or repercussions of the whole opioid issue over the decades,” said Lexington City Manager Jim Halasz.

Settlement money will trickle in over the next few years

So far, all three have received a total of about $181,771. Halasz said officials want to use the money to supplement existing programs that could help people who are suffering from opioid addictions.

Rockbridge County received $70,050 from the settlements that were reached in 2021 in civil lawsuits that had been filed nationally against major pharmaceutical companies, including Janssen, McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen, said County Attorney Vickie Huffman. The county expects additional settlement funds to continue to trickle in over the next several years.

Buena Vista has received about $84,000 so far, said City Manager Jason Tyree. Halasz said Lexington has received a total of $27,721.

Earlier last month, Rockbridge County, Lexington and Buena Vista each agreed to participate in a new set of settlements of civil lawsuits that were filed against Walmart, Walgreens, CVS and the pharmaceutical manufacturing companies Teva and Allergan.

pills spill out of bottle
FILE – In 2021 the number of opioid overdoses rose over 50%. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

As a part of the second set of lawsuits, the five pharmaceutical companies will pay over $18.7 billion to states and localities across the country that have been impacted by the opioid epidemic. Virginia is set to receive $425 million.

Thirty percent of the $425 million will then be divided among the state’s cities, counties and towns, according to the Opioid Abatement Authority, which was created by the General Assembly in 2021 to manage the settlement money that Virginia receives.

“It looks like a lot of money when you look at the total amounts,” Rockbridge County Administrator Spencer Suter said. “But when you consider that those amounts are going to be distributed over 18 years, it’s not as much annually.”

Jason Tyree, Buena Vista’s city manager, said the small, incremental amounts prompted the three government officials to talk about pooling the funds. He said they’re thinking about giving it to a nonprofit organization or government agency, like the Rockbridge Regional Jail, that has been affected by the opioid crisis.

Local opioid overdoses skyrocketed in 2021

In 2017, there were 20.2 opioid overdoses per 10,000 emergency department visits in Rockbridge County, according to the Virginia Department of Health. In 2021, the number had risen over 50%.

“It’s kind of like a ripple effect,” Tyree said. “You drop a stone into a lake, and you just see the ripples and that’s just sort of how it is. You drop that pill into somebody’s hand and then it just ripples. It’s just a terrible ripple effect.”

Tyree said he thinks the pharmaceutical companies should pay the local governments.

“I think it’s critical because we want to make sure that we recoup some of those funds so we can help people moving forward,” he said. “And hopefully get people moving away from opioids and to being good contributing members of society.”