Drug Distributors Strike First Opioid Settlement With Native American Tribe

By Nate Raymond

September 29, 2021

(Reuters) - The three largest U.S. drug distributors will pay more than $75 million to resolve claims they fueled an opioid epidemic in the Cherokee Nation's territory in Oklahoma, marking the first settlement with a tribal government in the litigation over the U.S. addiction crisis.

The deal announced by the Cherokee Nation on Tuesday came after McKesson Corp, AmerisourceBergen Corp and Cardinal Health Inc along with the drugmaker Johnson & Johnson agreed to pay up to $26 billion to resolve similar claims by states and local governments.

That settlement did not cover lawsuits or potential claims by any of the country's Native American tribes. The companies have remained in negotiations to resolve those cases.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin in a statement said the settlement, which will be paid over 6-1/2 years, would "enable us to increase our investments in mental health treatment facilities and other programs to help our people recover."

The Cherokee Nation became the first Native American tribe to sue drug distributors and pharmacy operators in 2017, accusing them of failing to stop the flow of addictive opioid painkillers within its territory in Oklahoma.

The sovereign Cherokee Nation has more than 390,000 citizens.

It accused the three distributors of flooding its territory with millions of prescription opioid pills, an oversupply of addictive painkillers that resulted in abuse and overdose deaths that disproportionately affected Native Americans.

More than 3,300 similar lawsuits have been filed by states, counties, cities and tribal governments. The companies denied wrongdoing, saying responsibility for ballooning painkiller sales lies with doctors, regulators and others.

The Cherokee Nation also sued pharmacy operators CVS Health, Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc and Walmart Inc. The case remains pending against them and a trial is expected in mid-2022. They deny wrongdoing.