Republicans put majority on notice; spend opioid settlement on problem [The Day Opinion]

August 9, 2021

Want an example of the importance of a loyal opposition to keep the majority party honest? Look no further than Republicans raising questions about how the opioid-settlement windfall will be spent.

(Column as it appeared in The Day By Paul Choiniere   Day Editorial Page Editor)

A couple of weeks ago Connecticut Attorney General William Tong announced that a $26 billion settlement had been reached with the nation’s three largest pharmaceutical distributors and drugmaker Johnson & Johnson.

Connecticut had joined other states and municipalities in suing the companies for contributing to the ongoing opioid crisis through their marketing and the failure to adequately warn about the highly addictive nature of the drugs they peddled.

Connecticut will receive about $300 million over 18 years.

Our July 24 editorial welcomed the settlement, while expressing concern over how it would be spent. Recall that much of the hundreds of billions of dollars from the Big Tobacco settlement was directed to state spending — across the country — rather than targeted at reducing tobacco use and addiction.

As the editorial reported, a report two years ago by a group of health advocacy organizations found that over 20 years states spent just 2.6% of their tobacco-settlement revenue on tobacco prevention and cessation programs. During that time, states received $453.4 billion in tobacco revenue — $156.7 billion from the tobacco settlement and $296.7 billion from tobacco taxes — but allocated only $11.8 billion to tobacco prevention and cessation programs.

Well, it turns out, some Republican state lawmakers had the same concerns as us, writing to Tong that,

“We must ensure that these dollars are used to continue this fight (against opioid addiction).”

“What protections will be in place to ensure the funds are used to combat the opioid epidemic, prevent addiction, and help people on the long road to recovery?” the letter asks.

Among the four signatories were our two local state Republican senators — Paul M. Formica of the 20th District, who serves as Republican leader pro tempore, and Heather Somers of the 18th District, ranking member of the Public Health Committee. They were joined by Kevin C. Kelly, the state Republican leader, and Sen. Tony Hwang.

In his Aug. 3 response, Tong points to several safeguards to protect the settlement funds. He agreed “the money we recover from wrongdoers must be directed to ‘abatement,’ i.e., strategies, initiatives and programs to help our states, victims and their families confront and overcome the crisis in opioid abuse and addiction.”

Specifically, the terms of the settlement require that no less than 85% of the settlement funds, and 86.5% in the case of Johnson & Johnson, be directed to opioid remediation. To the extent funds are otherwise used, those expenditures must be reported to a settlement fund administrator, with the reports publicly available.

Additionally, each state must create an “Opioid Settlement Remediation Advisory Committee” to seek public input and make recommendations for opioid remediation spending.

But the attorney general adds a sizable caveat. It begins with “notwithstanding,” a loaded loophole word that lawyers love.

“Notwithstanding the explicit and directed language of the settlement agreements, the final decision on the actual appropriations is ultimately up to the legislature and Governor Lamont…” Tong writes.

Now, do I think politicians will repeat the bait and switch witnessed after the tobacco settlement? No, I don’t. State legislators have always had it both ways on cigarette smoking — happy to raise taxes on cigarettes on the pretext it will discourage the addiction, but dependent on the revenue the tax generates — which would go away if too many actually quit.

There is no upside to the opioid addiction crisis. While tobacco use will gradually kill you, opioids suddenly will, and the bodies continue to pile up — 1,273 overdose deaths in 2020, another state record.

My expectation is that lawmakers, of both political persuasions, will do the right thing with the settlement money. And the money available could well grow if a settlement is reached in the case against Purdue Pharma.

But it can’t hurt to have Republicans ready to sound the alarm if the majority party tries to rationalize shifting the money elsewhere.

Paul Choiniere is The Day’s editorial page editor.