Molly Young

February 2, 2022

-USA Today


Native American tribes will receive a collective $590 million to settle claims that three drug distributors and drug maker Johnson & Johnson fueled the opioid crisis in Native American communities.

All federally recognized tribes in the U.S. will be able to participate in the settlements, even if they did not sue over opioids. And there could be settlements between other firms in the industry and tribes, many of which have been hit hard by the overdose crisis.

The settlement will be paid over seven years, according to documents filed Tuesday in federal court. The deal marks the latest in a series of financial payouts to governments grappling with a surge of painkiller addictions and deaths.

More than 400 tribes and tribal organizations had accused the prescription drug industry’s largest players of purposely flooding their communities with highly addictive opioids, causing overdose deaths and health care costs to skyrocket.

Former Oklahoma U.S. District Court Judge Layn Phillips had a central role in negotiating the settlement among tribes and the three distributors, AmerisourceBergen, McKesson and Cardinal Health, according to court filings. Those firms agreed to pay $440 million, and Johnson & Johnson will pay $150 million.

Phillips and another mediator will oversee how to split up the money among tribes. A woman who answered Phillip’s office phone said he did not speak to news organizations about cases. In 2020, he oversaw talks between Oklahoma and tribes entrenched in a dispute over the state’s model gaming compact.

Oklahoma has 38 federally recognized tribes, including at least 13 that initially filed lawsuits against opioid makers and distributors; the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, based west of Oklahoma City, among them.

In court filings, the tribe described the opioid crisis as oppressively vast, reaching every facet of its society. The tribe said a financial settlement would help “initiate the long path of recovery for its peoples, community and future.”

Attorneys for the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes were not available to speak about the settlement Tuesday.

The Cherokee Nation in northeast Oklahoma was among the first tribes to sue over prescription painkillers. There were so many opioids within the tribe’s 14-county reservation in 2015 that it amounted to 107 pills for every adult resident, court documents say.

In a statement, the Cherokee Nation said it will receive $18 million from Johnson & Johnson’s portion of the settlement announced Tuesday. The tribe previously reached a separate, $75 million settlement with three drug distributors involved in the case: AmerisourceBergen, McKesson and Cardinal Health.

Cherokee Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said the tribe plans to use the money to increase access to mental health care and other services.

The drug distributors are working on a massive settlement deal with states, allowing officials to opt in until Jan. 26. It’s unclear whether Oklahoma is one of the 43 states that have signed on.

Oklahoma’s fight against prescription drug makers faced a setback in November when the Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned the state’s $465 million verdict against Johnson & Johnson.