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U.S. seeks time to consider joining opioid litigation

March 2 (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department has asked a federal judge overseeing hundreds of lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors to give it 30 days to decide whether to participate in the litigation.

The department made the request in papers filed in federal court in Cleveland late on Thursday after U.S. President Donald Trump earlier in the day called for a federal lawsuit against companies over their roles in the opioid epidemic.

The Justice Department asked U.S. District Judge Dan Polster to give it time to evaluate participating in the litigation, citing the "substantial costs that the federal government has borne as a result of the opioid epidemic."

It cited estimates made by the White House Council of Economic Advisers in November that opioid abuse cost the U.S. economy as much as $504 billion in 2015.

"The economic burden from the opioid epidemic includes considerable costs associated with the medical treatment of opioid users," the Justice Department said.

As just one example of the costs federal agencies have incurred for treatment, the U.S. Defense Department's costs for care related to opioid use and dependence were $82 million in 2017, the Justice Department said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 42,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2016, the last year with publicly available data.

Thursday's filing came after U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions on Tuesday announced the department would file a statement of interest in cases consolidated before Polster, saying the federal government would seek reimbursement for the cost of the epidemic.

The judge is overseeing at least 355 lawsuits filed by cities, counties and others against opioid manufacturers and distributors generally seeking to recover the costs they had incurred grappling with the public health crisis.

Polster has been pushing for a quick, global settlement in the litigation, and has invited state attorneys general who have cases in state courts or who are conducting a multistate probe of the companies to participate in those talks.

The lawsuits have generally accused the drugmakers of deceptively marketing opioids and allege distributors ignored red flags indicating the painkillers were being diverted for improper uses.

The defendants include opioid manufacturers Purdue Pharma LP, Johnson & Johnson, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd, Endo International PLC and Allergan PLC and drug distributors AmerisourceBergen Corp, Cardinal Health Inc and McKesson Corp.

The first settlement hearing was held in January. A second one is expected on Tuesday. (Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)