NOEL KING, HOST:
Drug companies that are accused of playing a role in the opioid epidemic have settled claims so far this year worth more than half a billion dollars. And more of these cases are going to trial so those payouts are expected to grow. A big question is how all of that money will be spent - who's it going to go to? We saw this play out in Oklahoma yesterday where state politicians finally reached an agreement on how to spend an $85 million payout from Teva Pharmaceuticals. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann covers opioid litigation for NPR. He's on the line via Skype.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: So this case in Oklahoma was a big one - lot of money paid out. Remind us how we got here.
MANN: Yeah, this is part of a long history where hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against big drug companies all over the U.S., claiming they fueled the addiction crisis by aggressively marketing these addictive opioid medications. Last month, Teva Pharmaceuticals agreed to settle with the state of Oklahoma for $85 million, as you mentioned. But politicians were starting to lawyer up, fighting over exactly how that money would be spent.
KING: And they really were fighting over it. I mean, this came to a head yesterday in a courtroom in Oklahoma. What happened?
MANN: Yeah. All these politicians, the governor, lawmakers in the Legislature, the state attorney general - they finally cut a deal where the cash will go into a fund that Oklahoma's Legislature will get to spend. A judge signed off on that deal. All the money will be used for programs related to the opioid epidemic. This is interesting. It cannot be diverted to other projects.
KING: Why did all of this become so contentious when it seems like these settlements were supposed to be such a good thing for people who are suffering?
MANN: Yeah. So a couple of months ago, Oklahoma's attorney general did something that made people really mad. He's a guy named Mike Hunter. He cut a deal with another company, Purdue Pharmaceuticals, for $270 million. And then he decided unilaterally how all that money would be spent. He decided most of it would go toward a new opioid research center, not to treating people suffering from addiction. Hunter declined to talk with NPR, but he acknowledged in a speech that he faced a lot of anger from Oklahoma's Legislature.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MIKE HUNTER: Rose petals were not strewn in my path. There was a great consternation over me going around the appropriations process.
MANN: Hunter was speaking there to a group called the Bipartisan Policy Council (ph) in Washington.
KING: So Brian, you've been reporting that these lawsuits are happening all across the country and repeatedly. Does that mean a lot of other states are going to be watching Oklahoma to see how it handles its money and how it gets to agreements on how to handle its money?
MANN: Yeah, this is sort of a test case here. There are literally thousands of cities, counties, state governments, tribal governments across the country - all believe they've been harmed by the drug industry, and they want a slice of this payout money. Big pharma could eventually pay settlements and penalties on the scale of tens of billions of dollars.
And really, you know, the emotions are high as well. These communities are desperate. They're coping with people in their towns, their cities, who are opioid dependent, needing help for everything from rehab to housing to foster care. So there could be fights from one end of the country to the other.
KING: As you've pointed out on our air, there were these big settlements in the '90s from tobacco companies. Are we seeing a repeat of how states handled those settlements?
MANN: I think that is the concern.
MANN: We saw a lot of that tobacco money diverted to other things. People want this money to be spent on the opioid crisis, and that's what these fights will be about.
KING: Brian Mann reports for North Country Public Radio. He covers opioid litigation.
Brian Mann, thanks so much.
MANN: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF WILSON TANNER'S "KEITH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.