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NEW YORK — A group of state attorneys general announced a landmark $26 billion settlement Wednesday that holds drug companies accountable for the country’s opioid epidemic.

The settlement sends a strong message to drug makers and drug distributors that they’ve played a role in that in America’s opioid crisis. 

“The trail of destruction and tragedy has basically ravaged every corner of New York and just about every region of this nation,” said Letitia James, New York state’s attorney general. “The numerous companies that manufactured and distributed this poison did so without any regard for human life and for the national crisis that they caused.”

The deal calls for three big drug distributors — McKesson, Cardinal Health and Amerisource Bergen Drug — to pay out $21 billion. New Jersey-based manufacturer Johnson & Johnson is responsible for $5 billion, and has agreed to stop selling opioids.

Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds is president & CEO of Family and Children’s Association. He has been a leading voice on the crisis and an advocate for families who have lost loved ones.

“The opioid manufacturers, the distributors and retailers engaged in a series of practices that fooled the public into thinking opioids were safe,” said Reynolds. “No amount of money will bring those lives back, but the hope is these opioid settlement dollars can be used to help some families downstream avoid some of the tragic loss, some of the pain, some of the trauma that’s been completely preventable since the beginning of the crisis.”

New York is set to receive $1.1 billion from the distributors and $230 million from Johnson & Johnson. 

It will go toward a fund for much-needed social services, such as prevention education targeting youth, support services for people in recovery – like jobs and housing – and making sure treatment is available.

“Right now, it is easier to get heroin on Long Island than it is to get treatment — that has to change,” said Reynolds. “If I say I have a problem and I’m willing to get help, I shouldn’t have to call five treatment centers, I shouldn’t have to wait three weeks, I shouldn’t have to travel to another state to get care.”

More than 500,000 Americans have died from opioid overdoses in the last two decades — that includes addictions to prescription drugs and illegal drugs like heroin. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem. Dr. Reynolds said there have been 93,000 opioid fatalities in just the past year.

“I want to stop going to funerals. I want to stop holding the hands of families as they sob by the casket of an 18-year-old who didn’t have to die,” he said. “And one of the things we know about overdoses is they’re completely preventable.”

Most states like New York will decide on their own disbursement plan to local governments. 

The big three distributors will have 18 years to pay out, Johnson & Johnson will have five years. 

While today’s announcement settles lawsuits with the four companies involved, there are still thousands of other lawsuits involving other drug manufacturers still pending.