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Some 400,000 U.S. overdose deaths between 1997 and 2017 were linked to opioids, according to government data.Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press

Twenty-one U.S. states have rejected an US$18-billion settlement proposal from three major U.S. drug distributors to resolve lawsuits over their alleged role in the opioid crisis, although settlement discussions continue, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that the states objected to a settlement offer sent to the companies’ law firms earlier this week, instead pushing for a larger payment.

The dissenting states want the companies – AmerisourceBergen Corp., McKesson Corp. and Cardinal Health Inc. – to pay between US$22-billion and US$32-billion, the WSJ reported, citing a person familiar with a matter.

Sources with two state attorneys-general told Reuters the parties are in active discussions, adding the proposal is not dead but requires wider support.

Shares of the three companies, which together handle about 85 per cent of the U.S. prescription-drug market, were down about 1 per cent or less.

Some 400,000 U.S. overdose deaths between 1997 and 2017 were linked to opioids, according to government data. More than 2,500 lawsuits have been brought countrywide by states, local and tribal governments.

A trial is scheduled to begin on March 20 in which the State of New York and the counties of Suffolk and Nassau are suing drug distributors, drug makers such as Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and pharmacy chains including CVS Health Corp.

The US$18-billion settlement was proposed on the eve of the last major opioid trial in Cleveland in October, and the New York trial date could help push the parties to a deal.

McKesson is focused on finalizing a global settlement structure that would provide billions of dollars in immediate funding and relief to states and local communities, a company spokesman said in an e-mailed statement.

“We are committed to being part of the solution, but are also prepared to defend ourselves vigorously if the litigation progresses,” he added.

AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment.

The lawsuits accuse drug manufacturers of deceptively marketing opioids in ways that downplayed their risks, and drug distributors of failing to detect and halt suspicious orders. The companies have denied any wrongdoing.

Reuters reported in October that several U.S. states were pushing back on a proposed US$48-billion settlement to resolve claims against the distributors and drugmakers Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and J&J.

The rejection letter was signed by attorneys-general for 21 states as well as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, according to the WSJ report on Friday.