How the settlement of a national opioid lawsuit will impact Eagle County |

How the settlement of a national opioid lawsuit will impact Eagle County

County, local towns sign on for their share of settlement funds from country’s largest opioid distributors and manufacturers

Eagle County governing bodies have signed on to receive a portion of the roughly $400 million in settlement money Colorado will receive from national lawsuits filed against the county’s largest opioid distributors and manufacturers.

The funds would be used to solve the crisis that plaintiffs say ensued in part due to companies’ “deceptive marketing practices” and misrepresentation of the risk of addiction that comes with pharmaceutical-grade opioids, according to the lawsuit.

Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll said it is too soon to tell how much of this $400 million will end up in Eagle County and how exactly it will be spent, but much of it would likely be spent by Eagle County Public Health on substance abuse treatment and intervention, as well as behavioral health programs.

The county won’t see those funds until July at the earliest, but disbursements of funds will extend until July 2031, said Steve Mallory, assistant attorney for Eagle County, on Wednesday.

With the pandemic exacerbating substance abuse, Shroll said the money will come at an important time.

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“Stress tends to bring out addictions and all kinds of different substance abuse,” said Shroll, who also serves on the board of Eagle Valley Behavioral Health. “It doesn’t seem like we’re getting over COVID anytime soon, so addictions are going to be something we have to have a continued eye on in the county for the foreseeable future.”

How the funds will be split

The proposed $26 million settlement with the four drug companies was contingent upon enough states opting in to receive their portion of the funds, and, in turn, giving up their rights to file lawsuits against the companies in the future, according to reporting by Reuters.

The deal proposes a $21 billion settlement with McKesson Corp., AmerisourceBergen Corp. and Cardinal Health Inc. and a $5 billion settlement with Johnson & Johnson, Reuters reported.

Beyond this main lawsuit, the Colorado Department of Law has “led critical opioid litigation matters, including a nationwide action against McKinsey & Company for their role in turbocharging the opioid epidemic, a better settlement with the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma, and a multibillion-dollar settlement with Johnson & Johnson and the nation’s three largest drug distribution companies that fueled the crisis,” according to an August press release from Colorado Attorney General Philip Weiser.

To facilitate the disbursement of opioid funds, Weiser’s office developed a “joint framework” for the state’s governing bodies to sign on to if they want to be eligible for a portion of the settlement funds.

The agreement, which outlines how the money will be allocated and what it can be used for, was finalized in October after a series of meetings were held in regions across the state to get feedback on the document, Mallory said.

The $400 million represents the maximum amount of money the state is eligible to receive, but the ultimate allocation will be determined by how many local governing bodies sign on to the settlement deal, Mallory said.

So far, Eagle County government, as well as the towns of Vail, Avon, Minturn, Eagle and Gypsum, have all signed on to an agreement saying they would like to participate. Avon became the last Eagle County town to sign on last month.

Colorado has been divided into 19 regions for the purpose of distributing the funds, with Eagle County falling into region 5, according to the joint framework.

Of the money given to Colorado, 10% will stay at the state level, 20% will go to participating local governments (counties, cities and towns), 60% will be given to the 19 regions to be spent regionally and 10% will be allocated to “specific abatement infrastructure projects” across the state.

Municipalities can choose to sign onto the agreement even if they do not want to take on the work of deciding how to use their allocation of funds, Mallory said. In this case, towns and cities are allowed to “assign their shares” to other entities, like their county or region.

“It’s structured openly like that to encourage people to participate but not have to worry about individual uses,” Mallory said. “They can have theirs go into a larger pool to better effectuate change in the abatement of the opioid crisis.”

This will likely be the case for the town of Gypsum, Town Manager Jeremy Rietmann said Monday.

“The town doesn’t directly provide many, if any, of the services that are involved directly in the abatement of the opioid crisis,” Rietmann said.

“The public health agencies who actually can take those monies and help deal with misuse of opioids or try to help abate the problem … they can take that expertise and go deploy it with the funds they’ll have,” he said.

Front Range communities are likely to receive much more than Eagle County towns, which Vail Police Commander Ryan Kenney said is appropriate given how much cities like Denver and Aurora have been impacted by opioid use.

“We haven’t been as affected, thank God, as the Front Range community or big metro areas,” Kenney said. “So yeah, I don’t really expect to see a lot of money out of this. I would hope that it would go to a metro area that has expended a lot of funds on fighting this.”

A national crisis at the local level

Still, the Eagle River Valley has certainly not been immune to the national opioid crisis, which has led to increased use of legal and illegal opioids, Avon Police Chief Greg Daly said.

Fentanyl pills were seized in a 2021 drug bust on I-70 in Eagle County.
Gore Range Narcotics Interdiction Team

Some have suffered from what the state’s framework calls “opioid use disorder” after being prescribed opioids for an injury, and, after their prescription runs out, getting addicted to heroin, Daly said.

As a result, “they have actually gone down to Denver to buy heroin and bring it back up,” Daly said.

The effects of this can be seen in this year’s increase in drug busts along Interstate 70, many of which result in the seizure of heroin, oxycodone or fentanyl.

Police have seen an uptick in fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, being mixed in with shipments of heroin, Daly said. Fentanyl has been blamed for a significant increase in overdoses in many parts of the country, including Colorado.

In Eagle County, substance misuse has been the cause of 117 hospitalizations and 27 fatalities in the last five years.

Between 2013 and 2017, the county recorded a 330% increase in hospitalizations related to substance abuse while recording a 465% increase in visits for anxiety and depression during the same time period.

This clear link between mental health and the abuse or misuse of opioids demonstrates the importance of using settlement money to provide comprehensive support to Eagle County residents struggling with addiction, Shroll said.

Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, a subsidiary of Vail Health, is a good example of an agency that Eagle County Public Health might work with to inform their use of the funds, Shroll said.

General abatement fund councils will be formed at the state, regional and local levels to ensure that specific uses of settlement moneys fall within the terms of the statewide framework.

“All participants in the framework must use the funds they receive for opioid abatement purposes such as drug treatment, recovery, prevention and education, and appropriate harm reduction programs, as well as addressing the epidemic’s impact on the criminal justice system,” according to a news release from the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.

This last piece might involve problem-solving courts like the 5th Judicial District’s Recovery and RISE Courts, which place offenders on an alternate track designed to get them the support they need and reduce their likelihood to reoffend.

The statewide agreement cites “evidence-based treatment” and “recovery support” as two other kinds of programs that funding could be used for within the law enforcement realm.

Another section of approved uses outlined in the framework looks at early intervention support. This should entail training health care providers how to screen for and treat opioid use disorder in their patients, as well as how to educate their patients on risks associated with opioid use.

The framework also allows for funds to be used to strengthen interventions in schools, workplaces and in emergency or first-response situations.

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