After more than four years since the Cherokee Nation filed a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies, claiming the distributors failed to prevent the flow of illegally prescribed opioids into Indian Country, the tribe and three companies announced a settlement Tuesday.

Three of the largest U.S. drug companies – McKesson, AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation, and Cardinal Health – agreed to pay the tribe approximately $75 million over the next six and a half years to resolve the opioid diversion claims against them. It's the largest settlment in Cherokee Nation history.

Opioid diversion occurs whenever the supply chain of prescription opioids is broken, and the drugs are transferred from a legitimate channel of distribution, to an illegitimate channel. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Diversion Control Division, health care professionals share a responsibility to prevent abuse and diversion of prescription medicine, which the companies had been accused of not upholding.

“This settlement will help reduce and prevent opioid addiction and its deadly consequences in the Cherokee Nation Reservation,” CN Attorney General Sara Hill said. “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 – that continued litigation.”

The settlement stems from a 2017 petition, in which CN claimed both pharmacies and distributors were negligent in handling the supply of large quantities of prescription opioids. The tribe was among the first governments in the country to go after Big Pharma. The tribe had also made claims against Walmart, Walgreens and CVS at the time, but those claims remain pending and the tribe says it intends to pursue them through trial. The trial of the pharmacy claims is expected to be held next fall.

The Cherokee Nation has quickly grown its health system in recent years, providing for more facilities and programs to address behavioral and mental health. It appears the dollars from the settlement will continue to go toward such efforts.

“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. This settlement will enable us to increase our investments in mental health treatment facilities and other programs to help our people recover,” CN Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said.

Similar claims brought by state and local governments, as well as other tribal nations, are pending in several courts across the country, including an MDL proceeding in Cleveland, Ohio. Tuesday’s settlement is separate from, and independent of, any settlements or discussions in those cases.

In a joint statement, the companies said they view the settlement as an important step toward reaching a broader settlement with all federally recognized Native American tribes across the country.

“While the companies strongly dispute the allegations against them, they believe this resolution will allow the companies to focus their attention and resources on the safe and secure delivery of medication and therapies while delivering meaningful relief to affected communities, and will also support efforts to achieve a broad resolution with the remaining Native American tribes,” the companies said.

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