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OPIOID CRISIS: Bemidji and Beltrami County join state in opioid crisis settlement efforts

In their final meetings of 2021, the Bemidji City Council and Beltrami County Board of Commissioners approved resolutions to join the state in finalizing a settlement against opioid manufacturers and distributors. The action comes after a decade of local communities having to adjust as the opioid crisis hit the area.

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The Bemidji City Council approved a resolution on Dec. 20 entering into a memorandum of agreement with the state of Minnesota, which is participating in nationwide litigation against manufacturers and distributors of opioids. (Pioneer file photo)

Editor's note: This is the first story in a three-part series about a pending opioid-related settlement in Minnesota and how the opioid epidemic has impacted the Bemidji area.

BEMIDJI -- Both the Bemidji City Council and Beltrami County Board of Commissioners closed 2021 by entering an agreement with the state to participate in opioid-related settlements.

At its Dec. 20 meeting, the council approved a resolution entering into a memorandum of agreement with the state of Minnesota, which is participating in nationwide litigation against manufacturers and distributors of opioids. Estimates for the state’s share of the settlement have come to nearly $300 million to be spent over 18 years.

Earlier in December, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced that the state had reached an agreement with counties and cities on how to distribute the $300 million. Local governments are set to receive 75% of the settlements, while 25% will go to the state.

To receive funds from the settlements, local government units were asked to approve agreements with the state on the distribution. Of the 75% listed above, the dollars from that portion will only be going directly to counties and cities with a population of 30,000 or more.

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RELATED: Epidemic within a pandemic: Region sees uptick in drug overdoses

In discussing the settlement plan at an earlier meeting, Bemidji Mayor Jorge Prince said he was disappointed that cities such as Bemidji won’t get direct funding.

“There’s a lot of pain in the city of Bemidji, and I’m looking at this going ‘we’re totally reliant on the county working with us,’” Prince said. “The only mechanism we have for that is a once a year meeting. It feels like it’s a one size fits all model, and Bemidji is pretty unique relative to other communities."

“At the same time, I’m a realist,” Prince added. “I understand what’s being said, that if we don’t sign off on this, there are grant opportunities we can miss out on, and then we’re not doing our community any benefit either.”

A day after the council took action to join the settlement negotiations, the county government followed suit. On Dec. 21, the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners passed its own resolution to enter a memorandum of agreement with the state.

A history with opioid litigation

Beltrami County’s history with the litigation goes back several years. In February 2018, Beltrami County David Hanson was authorized to file a lawsuit against national opioid manufacturers and distributors.

The move was a multi-district court litigation, similar to a class-action lawsuit. However, a class action has plaintiffs together on a single suit, while multi-district litigation has plaintiffs remaining separate.

In the time since then, other counties and the state of Minnesota itself also launched suits of their own. During the Dec. 21 meeting, Hanson said the suits essentially merged together.

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The state took a step forward this past summer when Minnesota joined a broad, multi-state coalition in reaching settlements with the opioid manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, as well as three distributors, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson.

In July 2021, Ellison also announced the state is expected to receive more than $50 million over nine years from a settlement with Purdue Pharma, the company responsible for the opioid OxyContin. Introduced in the 1990s, OxyContin was promoted by Purdue, despite the company knowing the drug had addictive properties.

RELATED: Bemidji area sees sharp rise in drug overdoses, arrests

“No amount of money can ever make up for the death and destruction that opioid manufacturers and distributors caused in their pure pursue of profit,” Ellison said in a recent release. “No amount of money can bring back the 5,500 lives we’ve lost in Minnesota or fully restore the families and communities devastated in every part of our state.

“Now, we’ve brought together cities and counties from across Minnesota in a historic agreement to extract the maximum amount of money possible from these companies and get it to where the pain is, so we can address the suffering of families and communities in every part of our state as quickly as possible."

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz also commented on the impending settlement via a release.

“This is an important milestone that will bring relief to countless families in the form of treatment and prevention to combat the opioid epidemic,” Walz said. “I’m grateful for the work of Attorney General Ellison, as well as counties, service providers and the Opioid Epidemic Response Advisory Council to find ways to get aid to communities that have been most impacted.”

Beltrami County, and the surrounding region, continues to be one of those communities in Minnesota. Over the last decade, social service departments have been stretched thin because of foster care increases related to opioid abuse. Law enforcement agencies have been more accustomed to responding to overdoses and health providers have begun providing medical assisted treatment to those living with addiction.

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