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Maine tribes see a long road ahead after a tentative agreement with opioid manufacturers

Opioid Crisis-Tribes
Keith Srakocic
FILE - This June 17, 2019, file photo shows 5-mg pills of Oxycodone. Native American tribes in the U.S. have reached settlements worth $590 million over opioids. A court filing made Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022 in Cleveland lays out the details of the settlements with drugmaker Johnson & Johnson and distribution companies AmerisoruceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson.

Native American tribes will receive $590 million dollars from drug manufacturer Johnson and Johnson and three opioid distributors under the terms of a tentative settlement agreement announced earlier this week.

The proposal is a result of years of litigation, but it could take quite a while before tribes in Maine see real benefits on the ground.

The Passamaquoddy tribal governments at Indian Township and Pleasant Point are plaintiffs in the case, which included some 400 others around the country. The communities originally sued opioid manufacturers and distributors nearly four years ago, and their cases were consolidated into multi-district litigation. A committee of attorneys has been negotiating with the drug manufacturers and distributors on behalf of the tribes.

In a statement, Indian Township Chief Bill Nicholas said he's pleased to see a settlement on the horizon. The opioid epidemic has had a "severe, negative impact" on his community, he said.

"As Chief, I grapple with the real-life, ongoing impact of the opioid epidemic on the Passamaquoddy people every day," Nicholas said. "This settlement may provide some limited financial relief to address the damage that we have experienced because of the manufacturers and distributors of opioids, but we still have a long way to go before this settlement is approved and before real benefits are realized on the ground."

Corey Hinton, a lawyer for the Passamaquoddy tribe in Maine, said it's unclear how much communities will receive from the settlement, let alone how money will be allocated to individual tribes.

The proposed damages will repair a small fraction of the costs communities have incurred as a result of the opioid epidemic, he added.

"Clients are going to have to decide if the settlements they're being offered is worth it," Hinton said. "They're going to have to decide if it's worth it looking at what their actual losses were and whether or not this will compensate them for their losses."

Hinton said tribal leaders have told him about the opioid epidemic's toll on their schools, health centers and social services.

"They can drive around the reservation and look at every house and say whether that house has someone who passed away from an addiction issue, has the child of a parent who passed away because of an opioid addition or there's active substance abuse in the house," he said.

Still, Hinton called the settlement proposal a major, "historic" step.

"By no means the last chapter has not been written here. There's much more work to be done, but everyone who's been involved in negotiating the settlement certainly deserves a great deal of credit for getting the conversation this far. This is probably going to go down as one of the most complicated litigations in the history of the United States for a number of reasons."

All federally recognized tribes can eventually participate in the settlement, even if they weren't an original plaintiff in the case, according to terms of the proposal.