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States to Receive $50 Billion in Cash for Opioids, and It's a Governor's Race Issue

States to Receive $50 Billion in Cash for Opioids, and It's a Governor's Race Issue

Cash settlements for opioids are not inherently political. They are not the result of a law passed by Congress or a change in the state budget. These are not taxpayer dollars. Instead, they come from pharmaceutical companies that have been sued for their role in fueling the opioid crisis through prescription painkillers.

However, like most funds aimed at addressing public health crises, these funds have nonetheless become a political issue.

Candidates for governor in several states are debating who will have the bragging rights for funds totaling over $50 billion, distributed to state governments and local authorities over nearly two decades.

Among the candidates are attorneys general who have pursued lawsuits that led to the settlements, and they are eager to remind the public who brought home the unexpected windfall.

"Bringing money home to your constituents almost always plays well," says Stephen Voss, associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky. It's "a much more persuasive and unifying political argument than taking a position on something like abortion, where you're likely to alienate someone no matter what you say."

Law enforcement explores using opioid settlement money for police cars and body scanners HEALTH NEWS Law enforcement explores using opioid settlement money for police cars and body scanners In Kentucky, Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a Republican candidate for governor, wants sole recognition for the hundreds of millions of dollars his state is receiving to combat the opioid epidemic. In a message on the X platform, previously owned by Twitter, he wrote that his opponent, former attorney general and current Democratic Governor Andy Beshear, "filed many lawsuits during his time [in] office, but in this race, there is only one person who actually brought dollars home to fight the opioid epidemic, and it's not him."

However, during his tenure as attorney general, Beshear filed nine opioid-related lawsuits, some of which resulted in current settlements. At a January press conference, Beshear defended his role: "This is where these dollars come from — the cases I filed and personally litigated many of them in court."

Polls show Beshear leading Cameron ahead of the Nov. 7 election.

Kristin Minnich, founder of OpioidSettlementTracker.com, which closely monitors how attorneys general are allocating funds across the country, says that voters likely don't realize that opioid settlements are national deals negotiated by a coalition of attorneys general and private attorneys. So when one candidate claims credit for securing funds, voters may believe that "he's the only hero in all of this."

"The pathway to truth" is what the event in Washington, D.C., in September was called. Its aim was to push elected officials to take additional steps to address the overdose crisis in the country. Aneri Pattani / KFF health news Candidates in other states are also touting their settlement powers. North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, highlights funding opioid settlements in the top section of his gubernatorial campaign website's "accomplishments" for 2024.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a Republican candidate for governor in 2024, has repeatedly boasted about securing "the highest per capita settlement in the country" in press conferences, on social media, and on his campaign website. During his tenure as attorney general, he negotiated the distribution of opioid settlement funds within the state, resulting in an agreement to send 80% to counties and 20% to sheriff's departments, which is the largest direct allocation to law enforcement agencies in the country.

A common joke is that AG stands for "aspiring governor," and officials in that role often use major legal cases to advance their political careers. Research shows that attorneys general involved in multi-state lawsuits — such as those leading to settlements in opioid and tobacco cases before them — are more likely to run for governor or senator.

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