CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia will receive $99 million in a settlement finalized Monday with Johnson & Johnson’s subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc. over the drugmaker’s role in perpetuating the opioid crisis in the state that has long led the nation in drug overdose deaths.
State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said during a news briefing that he believes West Virginia’s settlement is the largest in the country per capita with Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen, which has faced opioid litigation in dozens of communities throughout the U.S.
The attorney general said the figure is reflective of the severity of the opioid crisis in West Virginia.
“We think it represents a major step forward to start to get money in the door to help West Virginians who have been devastated by the opioid epidemic,” Morrisey said from his state Capitol office.
The settlement was announced at the start of the third week of testimony in the state’s case against Janssen, Teva Pharmaceuticals Inc., AbbVie Inc.’s Allergan and their family of companies. The companies are accused of downplaying or failing to mention the risks of addiction associated with opioid use in West Virginia while overstating the prescription drugs’ benefits.
In a statement Monday, a spokesperson for Johnson & Johnson and Janssen said the settlement is not an “admission of liability or wrongdoing” by the company.
“The company’s actions relating to the marketing and promotion of important opioid prescription medications were appropriate and responsible,” a news release read. The company no longer sells prescription opioid medications in the U.S., according to the release.
Morrisey said West Virginia’s cities and counties could start seeing the settlement money within 45 days. The money will be used to help communities combat the opioid crisis. Meanwhile, he said the trial against Teva and Allergan is continuing as scheduled.
“We will have no delay in our pursuit of accountability against Teva and Allergan and we’ll be back in court now,” he said.
Filed in 2019, the state’s lawsuits accuse the companies of creating a public nuisance and violating the state’s Consumer Credit and Protection Act.
Attorneys for the companies said during opening statements earlier this month that their individual products in question had considerably less than 1% of the market share in West Virginia, were medically necessary prescriptions and could not have contributed to the state’s opioid problems.
But pharmaceutical marketing expert Matthew Perri testified that he “painstakingly” reviewed thousands of pages of marketing materials from the companies. He described a “paradigm shift” from the late 1990s to early 2000s in which the companies transitioned from marketing opioids as drugs designed for terminal cancer patients to drugs aimed at treating long-term pain.
Perri testified that marketing materials used by sales representatives described drugs as “safe and highly effective” at controlling pain and “improving functionality and quality of life” for patients.
“It took down the barriers that were there, and effectively lowered the bar” for the prescription of opioid medications, he said. “Opioids could be prescribed sooner in the treatment process, with less worry.”
Dr. Katherine Keyes, director of Columbia University’s Psychiatric Epidemiology Training Program, testified last week that the influx of prescription opioids into communities was the main driver of the state’s drug crisis — more than poverty, job loss and other economic stressors.
“The economic conditions were the kindling, but the opioid suppliers were the gasoline that was poured directly on that kindling,” Keyes said.
Dr. Rahul Gupta, the state’s former health officer, testified during a video deposition shown earlier this month that the opioid epidemic got so bad, the state was having trouble finding foster parents to care for children. He said it also led to increases in public health problems such as Hepatitis B and HIV cases and neonatal abstinence syndrome, a withdrawal in newborns caused by exposure to drugs in the womb.
Gupta, who is now the White House drug czar, recorded his testimony before he was named to his White House position last fall.
Before the trial started, Morrisey’s office announced the state settled part of the lawsuit involving another defendant, Endo Health Solutions, for $26 million.
State and local governments, Native American tribes, unions, hospitals and other entities have filed more than 3,000 lawsuits involving the opioid epidemic in state and federal courts.
In November, a California judge ruled in favor of Johnson & Johnson, Allergan, Endo International, Teva and others, saying local governments had not proven in a lawsuit that the companies used deceptive marketing to increase unnecessary opioid prescriptions and create a public nuisance.
Nationwide settlements were completed in February by Johnson & Johnson and distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson over their role in the opioid addiction crisis. That cleared the way for $26 billion to flow to nearly every state and local government in the U.S. West Virginia previously reached settlements in separate lawsuits, including $37 million with distributor McKesson in 2019, and $20 million with Cardinal Health and $16 million with AmerisourceBergen in 2017.
In Charleston, a separate bench trial wrapped up last summer in a federal lawsuit accusing AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson of fueling the opioid crisis in Cabell County and the city of Huntington. That judge has not indicated when he will rule.
Leah Willingham, The Associated Press