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Under proposed settlement, tribes will receive record $590M payment from opioid manufacturer, distributors

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Native communities have been disproportionately affected by the opioid crisis. Under a proposed settlement with manufacturers, tribal communities across the state could see financial relief.

In the Cherokee Nation, the equivalent of 42 pills per person were distributed each year in the 14 counties in its reservation boundaries. That's led to strain on health centers, child welfare systems and families.

That story stretches across Indian Country. In the proposed settlement filed in federal court Tuesday, Johnson & Johnson and other opioid manufacturers will pay $590 million.

The lawsuit was initially filed by 175 tribal nations, and if 95 percent of them sign off on the agreement, the money will be distributed to all 574 federally recognized tribes based on their population.

Cherokee Nation officials say they would receive $18 million under this agreement. The tribal nation has already come to a settlement agreement with Purdue Pharma and has pending litigation against pharmacies that distributed the drugs.

The Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations have also separately sued opioid manufacturers. If approved, the money from Tuesday's settlement would be distributed within months of being finalized.

“Today’s announcement of a tribal settlement against Johnson and Johnson includes funding to address the opioid crisis in the Cherokee Nation Reservation – a crisis that has disproportionately affected our Cherokee people," said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. “The Cherokee Nation took historic measures and was among the first tribe to file cases, and with this new settlement against Johnson and Johnson, the Nation has now recovered in $93 million in total to settle claims against opioid distributors.”

Cherokee Nation still has pending litigation against pharmaceutical retailers, including CVS and Walgreens.

Mike Burrage, a Choctaw citizen, is one of the lawyers who brought this lawsuit on behalf of the Chickasaw Nation. He said every family was affected by the distribution of opioids. His niece was addicted to painkillers and eventually committed suicide. One of his colleagues had a son die after struggling with addiction.

"The money will abate the crisis, but it's not enough to cure the crisis," said Burrage.

Burrage says that Chickasaw Nation will agree to sign on for the settlement. He said the tribal nation plans on using the money for drug treatment and to cover the healthcare and other costs the tribal nation has had to cover.

The allocation of the money will be determined by the number of enrolled citizens within each tribe. Tribal attorneys also looked at the amount of drugs distributed within the treaty territories of each tribe in the lawsuit.

"It was a long process the tribal attorneys went through trying to come up with what settlements would be fair in coming to an allocation," said Burrage.

Among the 175 tribal nations that filed the case against Johnson & Johnson and other pharmaceutical companies include several from Oklahoma – Apache Tribe of Oklahoma, Cherokee Nation, Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, Chickasaw Nation, Choctaw Nation, Comanche Nation, Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Delaware Nation and Muscogee Nation.

According to statements from the Indian Health Service that were included in the settlement filed in the federal court in Ohio, "American Indians and Alaska Natives had the highest drug overdose death rates in 2015 and the largest percentage increase in the number of deaths over time from 1999-2015 compared to other racial and ethnic groups.”

For this reason, the court said, "Tribal governments across the United States have had to spend considerable tribal funds to cover the costs of the opioid crisis, including increased costs for health care, social services, child welfare, law enforcement and other government services that Tribes provide to their citizens."

In an amicus brief filed in opposition to the defendants’ motion to dismiss tribal claims, the Muscogee and Blackfeet Nation wrote: “For Tribes, the opioid crisis is the latest in a series of existential threats that have challenged their physical, cultural and political survival. The crisis must be considered in the context of historical and intergenerational trauma wrought by colonial violence and attempted genocide, which magnifies the harms that opioid dependence and addiction now cause to Indian individuals, families, and communities."

Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
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