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Justice Department to join wave of state, city lawsuits against opioid makers, Sessions says

by Jon Schuppe /

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The Justice Department on Tuesday joined an escalating effort to squeeze money from companies who made the prescription painkillers that fueled America's opioid crisis, saying it would back lawsuits by hundreds of cities, states and other local governments that accuse the manufacturers of fooling the public into thinking the drugs were safe.

The support comes in the form of a "statement of interest" ─ a brief from the Justice Department that will outline what the crisis has cost the federal government, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a news conference while standing with attorneys general from seven states.

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Sessions said that one federal Medicare program paid out more than $4 billion in opioid-related costs in 2016.

Related: Opioid makers gave $10 million to drug advocacy groups amid epidemic

"The hardworking taxpayers of this country deserve to be compensated by any whose illegal activity contributed to these costs, and we will go to court to ensure the American people receive the compensation they deserve," Sessions said.

The brief will presumably be filed in federal court in Cleveland, where U.S. District Court Judge Dan Polster is overseeing hundreds of lawsuits against opioid makers, a case that could result in a massive settlement similar to states' 1998 settlement with the major tobacco companies.

Justice Department spokespersons did not return requests for comment on what the brief would say, or where it would be filed.

Rebecca Haffajee, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health who tracks the opioid lawsuits, said that the Justice Department's statement of interest doesn't make the federal government a party to the negotiations, but could influence Polster and put pressure on the drug companies to settle.

Related: Opioid crisis far more expensive than previously thought

"It's also a way for the Trump administration to counter some criticism that it's not doing enough," Haffajee said.

Indeed, the statement of interest was one in a long list of items Sessions cited as proof the administration is fighting the opioid scourge.

Related: Suit accuses drug distributor McKesson of fueling Kentucky’s opioid epidemic

He went over a series of criminal cases and initiatives, and announced the appointment of a federal prosecutor, Mary Daly, to lead the Justice Department's director of opioid enforcement and prevention efforts.

Sessions also said the DOJ was forming another task force, aimed at targeting drugmakers and distributors that "have contributed to this epidemic."

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