The Robert C. Byrd United States Courthouse in Charleston. Photo by F. Brian Ferguson

The Cabell County Commission and the City of Huntington won’t sign on to a proposed $21 billion national settlement that would end thousands of lawsuits against the nation’s largest drug distributors for their role in the opioid epidemic.

Instead, Cabell County and Huntington — as well as other local governments across the state — will be negotiating separately with the prescription drug wholesalers, said Paul Farrell Jr., who’s representing the commission. 

“West Virginia fully supports a national settlement for everyone except West Virginia,” Farrell told Mountain State Spotlight on Friday. “Everybody understands that any national settlement does not account for West Virginia. There’s no dispute about that.”

By striking its own deal with the distributors, West Virginia will likely receive more money than it would under a national settlement, according to lawyers close to the case.     

The companies have previously said that they want a national deal that resolves all lawsuits against them, not a patchwork of settlements.

A federal judge has scheduled a trial for Jan. 4 to hear Cabell County’s and Huntington’s lawsuits against the “Big Three” prescription drug distributors: McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen. The suits allege the companies fueled the opioid epidemic by flooding Cabell County with powerful and addictive painkillers like OxyContin and hydrocodone. The distributors have denied any wrongdoing.

In its quarterly earnings report earlier this week, McKesson announced that it, along with rivals Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen, could be expected to pay $21 billion over 18 years to settle some 2,500 lawsuits filed against the companies by states and local governments across the country. A group of state attorneys general proposed the deal’s framework last month during settlement talks, McKesson said.  

The company added that it “has not reached a point where settlement is probable,” and stressed that the proposed deal would require approval from “numerous parties.” The two sides still have many “complex issues” to work out, according to McKesson’s quarterly report.

Under the proposed settlement, lawyers would get about $2 billion over seven years, the Times reported. The rest of the money would be earmarked for drug treatment and prevention programs. States would decide how to distribute the settlement funds.

Between 2017 and 2019, the three major distributors agreed to pay West Virginia state agencies a combined $73 million to settle lawsuits that alleged the companies contributed to the opioid crisis. But the settlements didn’t include counties, cities and towns across the state that filed separate suits.

West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation, and overdoses have increased this year amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to preliminary data from the state Office of Drug Control Policy.

The oversupply of opioid pain medications — triggered by doctors writing too many prescriptions — is widely believed to have started the opioid epidemic and led to a record number of fatal overdoses.

If a national settlement falls through, McKesson said it was prepared to go to trial.

Last month, the company asked a federal judge to block potential witnesses in West Virginia from testifying about their first-hand experiences dealing with the opioid crisis. Lawyers for Cabell County and Huntington have urged the judge to allow West Virginians to tell their “personal stories of addiction” at trial. 

This post has been updated to include comments from Farrell.

Eric Eyre, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting in 2017 for stories on the opioid crisis, was formerly a senior investigative reporter at Mountain State Spotlight. He is the author...