'All the kings shall fall': DMC Attorney Lisa Schaefer details $1.35M J&J opioid payout

·4 min read

Des Moines County is expected to receive an estimated $1.35 million as the result of a $173 settlement reached between the state of Iowa and Johnson & Johnson for opioid-related claims.

The settlement, Des Moines County Attorney Lisa Schaefer explained Tuesday to the Des Moines County Board of Supervisors, is part of a lawsuit that has been undertaken by a number of states, counties and cities against the pharmaceutical company in an effort to repair the damage done by the opioid epidemic.

The lawsuit filed by government agencies alleges that Johnson & Johnson, as well as three distributors of Johnson & Johnson's opioids, downplayed the risks of opioids, aggressively marketed opioid use to physicians to treat chronic pain and failed to report or investigate "suspicious orders of prescription opiates."

Des Moines County joined the suit in 2018.

"We knew at that time that there was a problem in Des Moines County," Des Moines County supervisor Jim Cary told The Hawk Eye. "And if there was any money coming from these (lawsuits), we did not want to be left out so we could put it to good use to help the people who are addicted."

In explaining the severity of the opioid epidemic in Des Moines County, Schaefer informed the supervisors of a recent incident where police officers in West Burlington found a bag containing 23 grams of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine, in a hotel.

"It sounds like a little, but it was pure fentanyl," Schaefer said. "There was enough to kill everyone in that hotel."

Schaefer said the person believed to have been in possession of the fentanyl has refused to tell law enforcement where they acquired it.

That discovery of fentanyl was not an isolated incident. Schaefer said officers in the county who have touched bags of fentanyl have had to be taken to Southeastern Iowa Regional Medical Center and be given Narcan, the brand name for naloxone, a drug used to combat the effects of opioids like fentanyl and heroin.

When officers end up at the hospital for fentanyl exposure, they need a few days off work to deal with the after-effects. Because suspects do not intend to harm officers who collect drugs during an arrest, Schaefer said, it is difficult to press charges as there is a requirement of an intent to cause harm.

It now is a policy for law enforcement agencies in the county to send suspected fentanyl to the state lab for testing as field testing is to dangerous. Schaefer said fentanyl is often mixed in with other street narcotics, meaning even if a bag is thought to have another drug there may still be dangerous amounts of fentanyl. Officers handling the drugs also must wear two pairs of gloves.

Fentanyl first was synthesized in 1960 by Paul Janssen, a Belgian chemist and the founder of Janssen Pharmaceutica, and was approved for medical use in 1968. Janssen is a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson.

Johnson & Johnson said in a statement released in June that the company's settlement with the state of New York in a similar lawsuit was not an admission of wrongdoing and that it has discontinued selling opioids in the U.S.

Schaefer's presentation of the details of the settlement came less than a month after a federal jury found CVS, Walgreens and Walmart, three of the nation's largest pharmacy chains, liable for helping to fuel the opioid crisis.

"We are expecting that all the kings shall fall," Schaefer said.

What we know about how the settlement money will be distributed and spent

Strict rules will apply to how the settlement money is spent, Schaefer said, explaining the $1.35 million must be used for addiction treatment and prevention of opioid abuse.

An agreement dated this past July laid out the allowable uses of this money and Schaefer said there likely will be a means of ensuring the money is spent in a manner described in the settlement.

The money will be paid out over the course of 10 years, with payments likely starting sometime next year. The supervisors will discuss how to spend the money during a work session in the future.

Schaefer hopes to work with other counties to look at the problem with a more regional approach.

Schafer said there is a possibility that Des Moines County could receive more than $1.35 million, but only if other counties decline the amount they are set to receive through the settlement. Schaefer said this may happen if a county receives too small of an amount to institute a program.

Per an agreement between the counties and the state, any money that is declined by a county will be redistributed amongst the counties that have elected to receive money from the settlement.

This article originally appeared on The Hawk Eye: What to know about Des Moines County's opioid settlement with Johnson and Johnson

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