The Cherokee Nation reached a $75 million settlement with three of the country’s largest opioid distributors on Tuesday as part of a lawsuit claiming they had fueled an epidemic on tribal lands in Oklahoma.
The deal, with the companies McKesson Corp., AmerisourceBergen Corp. and Cardinal Health, is the first of its kind with a tribal government. Tribal leaders hailed the move as a historic victory, saying the funds would be used to address the opioid epidemic and prevent addiction.
“Today’s settlement will make an important contribution to addressing the opioid crisis in the Cherokee Nation Reservation; a crisis that has disproportionately and negatively affected many of our citizens,” the tribe’s principal chief, Chuck Hoskin Jr., said in a statement.
Full terms of the settlement have not been announced, but the funds will be paid out over 6½ years, the Cherokee Nation said. Officials described it as the largest settlement in the history of the tribe, which has more than 390,000 citizens.
The companies called the settlement “an important step toward reaching a broader settlement with all federally recognized Native American tribes across the country,” but Reuters notes the firms continue to deny any wrongdoing.
Legal action against Walmart, Walgreens and CVS remains pending, and the Cherokee Nation said it planned to “vigorously pursue” claims against the pharmacies at a pending trial.
“This settlement will help reduce and prevent opioid addiction and its deadly consequences in the Cherokee Nation Reservation,” Sara Hill, the attorney general for the Cherokee Nation, said in a statement. “We are grateful that these distributors share our desire to solve the problem. We believe today’s settlement will do more to help solve this problem — and solve it sooner — than continued litigation.”
The Cherokee Nation was the first Native American tribe to sue drug distributors and pharmacies in 2017, claiming the companies flooded the region with pain pills that sparked dramatic rates of addiction and death.
At the height of the opioid epidemic, Native Americans were among the most at-threat communities in the country. A 2020 analysis by The Washington Post found Native Americans were almost 50% more likely to die of an opioid overdose than non-native Americans. Opioid pills were shipped to Oklahoma at rates rivaling states in Appalachia, the epicenter of the epidemic, the newspaper found.
The three drug companies party to Tuesday’s deal are also negotiating the final stages of a massive $26 billion settlement with state and local governments across the country alongside a fourth company, Johnson & Johnson. Forty-two states agreed to join that settlement deal this month, with most of the money expected to go toward states’ drug treatment programs and education to fight opioid abuse.
A separate case against the Sackler family’s Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, which received initial approval by a bankruptcy judge, moved ahead in recent weeks as well. That deal could result in $10 billion in payments to settle thousand of lawsuits from state and local governments, but the Sackler family will be shielded from any future lawsuits over their opioid business.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that almost 500,000 people died in the U.S. from 1999 to 2019 due to opioid overdoses.