TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL)- At least five Northeast Tennessee counties could see additional funding for addiction resources if a settlement with Purdue Pharma stands.
Purdue made billions selling the highly addictive prescription pain killer OxyContin.
The company recently filed for bankruptcy days after reaching a multi-billion dollar settlement that could put to rest some 2,600 lawsuits by state and local governments across the country.
Johnson City Attorney Thomas Jessee is part of a group representing about 560 cities and counties in lawsuits against several opioid distributors and manufacturers, including Purdue.
“I think everybody knows they made the pills. It’s kind of hard to dodge the fact that they’re responsible,” said Jessee.
Purdue’s settlement doesn’t currently include any admission of wrong-doing, a point of contention for critics.
That said, Jessee said the current deal comes with a plus side.
“Had they decided to continue to fight this litigation, the resources of the company would go to their legal teams,” Jessee said. “I think it does stop the company from having to spend all the money defending.”
Jessee emphasized his cases are not a “class-action lawsuit,” meaning they would all need to be litigated separately.
He hopes Purdue’s settlement will encourage other opioid distributors and manufacturers facing lawsuits to pay back the hardest-hit communities.
If the settlement stands, he said each county could still take their cases to trial in their home districts or they can have a say in determining their share of funds over the next 10-12 months.
“We felt the best recipient of the damage money would be the people closest to the problem. It’s a local problem that needs a local solution,” Jessee said.
A database mapping the distribution of oxycodone across the country between 2006 and 2012 shows tens of millions of pills flowed into the five Northeast Tennessee counties Jessee is representing in Ohio’s Federal District Court.
Jessee said the money from the tentative Purdue settlement would go directly to county resources burdened by the opioid epidemic.
“We have a bunch of great tools that we know work. We just have to expand the use of them and we need funding to do that,” said Rob Pack, director of East Tennessee State University’s Perscription Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment Center.
He said those dollars should be used to expand harm reduction programs that prevent the spread of infectious disease from needle sharing.
Plus, he said access to medication-assisted treatments like methadone should be improved.
“People that have access to medications for opioid use disorder are much more likely to stay engaged with their treatment services,” Pack said. “Overtime their likelihood of relapse is lower.”
Chad Duncan, Frontier Health’s division director for adult outpatient addiction services in Tennessee, said there’s a need to improve transportation resources so people can get to and from treatment, especially in rural areas.
Duncan said funds should also be used for more long-term recovery housing.
“A lot of the folks, as they start to enter treatment, they may be motivated for change but the environment they have around them is not as conducive to recovery as what it needs to be in most cases,” Duncan said. “They have to get to a place where they can live where there’s not other people using in the home.”
Duncan and Pack said counties should fund education programs to address the stigma surrounding addiction and to prevent the problem of prescription drug abuse in future generations.
Jessee said some counties may use the funds to address jail overcrowding related to the opioid epidemic.
Duncan said drug diversion programs in the court system are also in need of additional resources.