By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

County will join national settlement agreement over opioids

Yamhill County will join a $26 billion settlement agreement in a lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson and three distributors over opioid manufacturing and distribution, the county board of commissioners unanimously agreed on Thursday.

Oregon’s share of the settlement could be $320 million to $330 million, to be divided among the state and counties, County Counsel Christian Boenisch told commissioners. Of that, Yamhill County’s share is uncertain, but could be a few million dollars, distributed over 18 years. The money is to be used to fight opioid addiction.

There is a catch, however, in that the amount of money the county receives depends in part on all of the eligible cities and counties signing on to the agreement. Contentious negotiations over how Oregon’s share would be divided were just recently concluded, with the decision that the state would receive 45% of the money, cities and counties 55%, portioned out among them.

If even a few refuse to join, Boenisch said, it could substantially reduce everyone’s share.

Boenisch noted that the state’s share might later be handed out to counties in the form of grants or program funding.

Exactly how the money can be used is spelled out in the agreement, Boenisch said.

The state and counties have also been arguing over how much counties may pay their attorney. Yamhill and several other counties went in together in the lawsuit, and agreed to pay attorney Tom D’Amore of Lake Oswego a quarter of any proceeds they received in a settlement.

A federal judge later intervened, ruling that the counties could not pay more than 15% of the settlement proceeds in attorney fees.

According to the Lund Report, State Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has argued that 15% is also too much, and that counties should not be able to use more than 12% of the settlement fees to pay D’Amore. If they want to pay him the additional 3%, Rosenblum said, it should come out of county coffers, not money intended to fight opioid addiction. Lane County in particular, the Lund Report noted, has taken offense at Rosenblum’s position.

Yamhill County Administrator Ken Huffer and Boenisch have not said how much the county will pay D’Amore. On Thursday, Boenisch told commissioners that if they want to know the specifics, they should convene an executive session, closed to the public. Commissioners said they felt no need to take that step.

Boenisch told commissioners that the attorney fees are estimated to be “in the range of $12 million,” but that the settlement agreement has set aside $8.8 million nationally for attorney fees, a portion of which will be allocated to Oregon, and the agreement between the state of Oregon and its cities and counties provides another $2.5 million, so the county’s share of the payment is “significantly reduced” from what it had expected to owe.

Rosenblum noted in a statement last July that “In 2020, 462 Oregonians died from unintentional opioid overdoses, up from 280 in 2019.

“This is a decades-long tragedy fueled by the opioid industry. We must finally find a way to bring these numbers down,” she said. 

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