In the late 1990s, the tobacco industry agreed to pay billions of dollars in fines to state governments to offset some of the medical costs associated with caring for the millions of Americans dealing with the effects of nicotine addiction.
Inspired by the tobacco model, state and local governments came together in recent years to sue Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of the drug OxyContin, for its role in the opioid crisis. That lawsuit came to a tentative resolution Wednesday.
How should any settlement money be divvied up? West Virginia University president Gordon Gee, argues that at least some of it should go to hospitals.
“For example...let me just use Ruby,” he said, meaning Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown.
“We have about 25 to 30 opioid patients in our hospital right now who are in need of heart valve replacements. And this is part of the result of the opioid crisis. Each one of those people will stay in our hospital for 50 to 60 days, a lot of it unreimbursed. So this is in the order of millions of dollars of uncompensated care,” he said.
Gee added that though Medicaid and Medicare offsets some of this care, much of the financial burden falls on the hospital. “Therefore you have to raise the prices on other goods and services delivered in the hospital or on paying patients.”
To address this problem, former Ohio Governor John Kasich and Gee unveiled a new non-profit, Citizens for Effective Opioid Treatment, in August. The main goal of this initiative is to funnel opioid settlement money directly to hospitals rather than to the coffers of local and state governments.
“In this instance, if the settlement is appropriate, it will really go to those who are impacted,” said Gee. “Not so much as a reimbursement system, but as a system of filling the hole that has already been developed.”
Gee said the tobacco settlement showed the wrong way of directing this money. While the money was intended to go toward smoking prevention and healthcare, in reality much of it was spent on filling state budget gap holes or paying off debts.
“The ideal outcome would be for us to defeat this damn crisis,” he said. “That would be the ideal outcome. But the intermediate outcome would be making sure we have the resources to attack the crisis.” In other words, he wants the health care system to be “appropriately recognized, compensated and given opportunity to really attack this crisis” as a result of any settlement.
The cities of Huntington and Charleston, as well as the state of West Virginia, are all plaintiffs in the Purdue Pharma case.
We reached out to all of these plaintiffs asking if they had a plan for how the money would be used. A lawyer involved in the Huntington and Charleston cases said both cities do have a plan for using the money for treatment, but didn’t share specifics. The Charleston mayor’s office issued a statement saying, “At this time, we are waiting to see if a settlement will be reached. If a settlement is reached, the administration will work with Charleston City Council and other interested parties to create a plan for the funds.”
The Attorney General’s office did not respond to the question but did issue a press release Thursday afternoon that said the state will not “sign on to any final deal unless it puts our state in the strongest possible position to fight this epidemic.”
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from Marshall Health and Charleston Area Medical Center.