Our Opinion: Purdue settlement isn't good enough
Reportedly, 22 state attorneys general have agreed to a settlement of their lawsuit with Purdue Pharma over the Oxycontin manufacturer's role in the opioid epidemic that plagues Massachusetts and much of the nation. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey wants no part of the settlement, and for good reason.
Ms. Healey brought the first lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, arguing that the company and its top executives fueled the opioid crisis with an aggressive sales push that disregarded the dangerously addictive qualities of their product. This is difficult to dispute, in large part because of emails sent by Dr. Richard Sackler, a Purdue executive and head of the Connecticut-based controlling family. The reported settlement calls for between $7 billion and $9 billion from Purdue Pharma and another $3 billion over seven years from the personal fortune of the Sackler family. The company would be allowed to restructure through bankruptcy proceedings, although reports differ as to how it would be allowed to restructure and whether the family would be allowed to continue in the pharmaceutical business.
Ms. Healey maintains that the contribution from the Sackler family is insufficient considering the costs that have burdened the state as it confronts the opioid epidemic. She also wants the Sackler family to acknowledge its part in the crisis and to apologize for it. Thomas Donovan, the attorney general in neighboring Vermont, also rejects the settlement, maintaining that only a fraction of the money is guaranteed. Arguing that "billionaires can't use bankruptcy court as a vehicle to avoid accountability," Mr. Donovan wants Purdue Pharma to be shut down and the company's assets sold, with the proceeds used in part to help "Vermonters whose lives have been ruined."
The callousness and irresponsibility of Mr. Sackler were evident in the emails of 2001. In response to early concerns about Oxycontin's harmful impact, Mr. Sackler declared "We have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible. They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals." This would anger anyone who has lost a family member to addiction and frustrate the many social service agencies that must confront the social stigma attached to addiction as they try to help addicts. Mr. Sackler says his views on addicts have since "evolved and changed."
At a launch party for Oxycontin in the 1990s, Mr. Sackler, according to another email from 2001, said the launch of the drug would be "followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition." That appears to be what happened, and in her lawsuit, Ms. Healey alleges that Purdue Pharma deployed falsehoods to keep patients away from safer alternatives to the painkiller and misled doctors and patients to get more people to use their drug at "higher and more dangerous doses." According to the state lawsuit, Purdue sent sales representatives to Massachusetts doctor's offices, clinics and hospitals more than 150,000 times from 2008 to 2018. The medical community in Massachusetts and elsewhere has acknowledged its role in painkiller addiction and addressed it by tightening up the prescription process and helping patients find alternatives.
The main focus of the civil lawsuits brought by the states is not to penalize the Sacklers but to receive money to compensate families for their losses and states for the money spent on treating addiction and fighting the opioid epidemic. In rejecting the settlement, Connecticut Attorney General William Tong said `The scope and scale of the pain, death and destruction that Purdue and the Sacklers have caused far exceeds anything that has been offered thus far. Connecticut's focus is on the victims and their families, and holding Purdue and the Sacklers accountable for the crisis they have caused.''
Along with guaranteed financial compensation, the AGs want full accountability from Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers. In Mr. Donovan's words, "I believe that the story needs to be told about how this epidemic started." The attorneys general from Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut should continue to pursue these goals in a court of law.
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