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Ohio opioid settlement panel's records must be public, top state court says

Oxycodone pills spill out of a bottle
Mark Lennihan
/
AP
This photo shows an arrangement of Oxycodone pills in New York, Aug. 29, 2018. The state panel that will decide how Ohio distributes more than half of the money it will receive from a nationwide settlement regarding the opioid addiction crisis must make its records publicly available, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday, May 11, 2023.

The state panel that will decide how Ohio distributes more than half of the money it will receive from a nationwide settlement regarding the opioid addiction crisis must make its records publicly available, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

In their unanimous ruling, the justices rejected the OneOhio Recovery Foundation's claim that it was a private nonprofit corporation and therefore not subject to the state's open public records law.

The justices found the foundation “misstates its function,” noting it's not responsible for providing treatment, education or prevention services, but rather giving settlement money to those who do provide such services.

The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit brought by Harm Reduction Ohio, a drug policy reform group that has sought documents related to the panel’s board meetings and “numerous” committee meetings involving “hiring, finances, bylaws and other matters.”

The reform group also said its president was not allowed to attend the panel’s initial meeting in May 2022, even though officials had said it would operate as if it were subject to Ohio’s open meetings law.

The 29-member panel consists of state representatives, local government leaders, addiction treatment experts and others from around the state. It will decide how to distribute more than $440 million of an $808 million settlement reached last year with the nation’s three largest pharmaceutical distributors and drugmaker Johnson & Johnson.

OneOhio, which also will seek long-term solutions to the opioid epidemic, has maintained that it’s trying to follow what the settlement mandated — that it be a private nonprofit organization — and that openly saying it’s a public body would jeopardize that status.

“The decision doesn’t change things," said Connie Luck, a spokesperson for OneOhio. “Consistent with its mission, the foundation operates in a transparent fashion and will continue to do so.”

Harm Reduction Ohio President Dennis Cauchon said the ruling brings “a critical level of transparency” to the money allocation process,

“Our state’s $1 billion in settlement funds should not be spent in secret," Cauchon said. "People died for this money. They have a right to know what’s happening and to be involved in the process.”