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As Opioid Suits Settle, Priorities Clash

Story by Douglas Soule

West Virginia lawmakers, anticipating millions of dollars from potential settlements with opioid manufacturers, are vying for control of the proceeds.

West Virginia Delegate Andrew Robinson, D-Kanawha, said delegates could introduce legislation during the 2020 legislative session that would reduce the state attorney general’s office’s ability to control future settlement money. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey filed new lawsuits against opioid manufacturers Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceuticals this year.

While Robinson said he’s not sure if he would be the lead sponsor on a bill that would allow lawmakers to direct spending of all settlement money, he added “a lot of people” are interested in passing such legislation.

“The general idea [for the bill] is to make sure that settlements that are given to the state are awarded to the state,” he said.

“The legislature has the best tools to appropriate that money,” Robinson said, adding that the attorney general does not “have that capability or authority.”

The state has settled earlier lawsuits against Big Pharma four times since 2004, bringing in a total of $94 million. In each case, some of the settlement money went into a fund controlled by the attorney general’s office, drawing criticism from lawmakers who say they have oversight of state spending. The state’s most recent settlement was in May with opioid distributor McKesson for $37 million. 

At that time, Robinson and state Del. Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette, sent a letter to Attorney General Patrick Morrisey asking that the $37 million be distributed into the Ryan Brown Addiction Prevention and Recovery Fund, which provides funding for treatment and recovery of opioid addiction. In late July, claiming not to have received a response from the first letter, Robinson joined four other delegates – Kessinger, Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell, Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, and Del. Mark Dean, R-Mingo – to again request that the attorney general allow the Legislature access to the money from the McKesson settlement.

Morrisey responded to the delegates’ letter with one of his own, telling them that he looks “forward to working with the Legislature and the Governor to facilitate the return of the monies.”

Curtis Johnson, press secretary for West Virginia’s Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, wrote in an emailed statement, “Our office believes the vast bulk of drug settlement monies should be used for treatment. However, this is a broader question for the state Legislature to decide as its members control the power of the purse. 

“We look forward to working with the Legislature and Governor to return opioid settlement monies to the state and ensure those dollars are used to attack the drug epidemic holistically,” Johnson added.

The next regular legislative session is set to begin on Jan. 8 and end on March 7. 

In 2017, lawmakers created the Ryan Brown Addiction Prevention and Recovery Fund and used $21 million from settlements with Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and other smaller opioid distributors to fund a series of drug treatment facilities.

But other legislative attempts to address the attorney general’s control of the settlement funds have failed in recent years.

House Bill 3062, entitled the Settlement and Recovered Funds Accountability Act, passed the House but died in the Senate Finance Committee in 2017. The bill would have directed settlement money, even if secured by the attorney general’s office, to the state’s general revenue fund.

A similar bill passed the Senate and House but was vetoed by Gov. Jim Justice in 2018.

Earlier this year, a bill proposed by two Republican state delegates and one Democrat delegate would have put future settlement money on behalf of the attorney general or a state agency into the state’s Ryan Brown Addiction Prevention and Recovery Fund. The measure passed the House but not the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Efforts to control how opioid settlement money is spent are happening outside of Charleston.

West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee, who is also the chair of the West Virginia University Health System Board of Directors, partnered with former Ohio Gov. John Kasich this summer to form Citizens for Effective Opioid Treatment, which aims to direct national opioid settlement money to hospitals.

“We just want to make sure that the most important individuals in terms of the crisis are at the table, and that is our hospital and our caregivers,” Gee said. “Our project is an educational project, so it’s not an advocacy project. What we’re really about is informing people about the crisis confronting our healthcare givers, including our hospitals.”

Gee said the amount distributed to hospitals should be significant.

Meanwhile, hospitals and local governments in West Virginia are taking further action against opioid manufacturers and distributors. 

WVU Hospitals is one of more than two dozen hospitals listed as plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in April in Marshall County Circuit Court. 

Hunter Mullens, a West Virginia attorney who filed a lawsuit in Marshall County Circuit Court in January against opioid companies on behalf of Barbour, Mason, Taylor and Webster Counties, said local officials are best suited to distribute settlement money. 

“When I say local levels, I mean counties, cities and towns,” he said. “Obviously, the county commissioners, the city council members, they know what’s going on in their communities, and they’re elected officials, they answer to the public.”