Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, a public health emergency was already well underway: the opioid crisis. Declared by health experts and government officials as a nationwide epidemic, the opioid crisis has lasted several years and has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans.
The company largely responsible for the massive abuse of opioid drugs—a primary contributor to the opioid epidemic—is Purdue Pharma, maker of the infamous synthetic opiate pain-relieving drug, OxyContin.
By January of 2019, 36 states had sued Purdue Pharma for deceptive marketing practices, including promising doctors that patients would not become addicted to OxyContin, and for paying doctors to write more opioid prescriptions. As a result of the litigation, Purdue that same year filed for bankruptcy; the company faced $2 trillion in claims by the states.
In March of 2019, Purdue settled with the state of Oklahoma—the first of 1,600 lawsuits the company faced at the time—for $270 million, part of which will be devoted to addiction research, treatment and legal fees.
But Purdue’s troubles didn’t end at the state level. Facing federal criminal charges, Purdue has recently agreed to plead guilty for its role in fueling the opioid crisis. According to a CNN report, the company will pay a $3.5 billion fine and nearly $3 billion in liability costs. Purdue will also have to forfeit $2 billion in profits. This makes the $8 billion in penalties the largest ever for a pharmaceutical company.
In addition, the former owners of the privately-held company, the Sackler family, who also made a fortune selling Valium, settled with the Department of Justice for $225 million. Despite the civil liability settlement, the Sacklers as well as other company executives, may still be charged for committing federal crimes.
The End of Purdue But Not Oxycontin
Purdue lacks the assets to pay the $8 billion in penalties. This means that Purdue will be dissolved as a company. However, the drug that became the face of the epidemic—OxyContin—will still be available, much to the chagrin of some States’ Attorneys General.
According to CNN, 25 state AGs wrote to US Attorney General, William Barr, objecting to the federal plan to dissolve Purdue and use its assets to form a government-controlled company that would essentially sell the same drug that greatly contributed to the deaths of over 450,000 Americans from 1999 to 2016; opiate drug overdoses account for approximately 45,000 deaths every year.
One State Attorney General expressed dismay at the fact that the federal government could have sent the Sackler family to prison rather than imposing fines that they may never fully pay. Every dollar paid in fines is one dollar that individual states will not be able to use in order to fund much-needed addiction treatment centers, pay for legal costs and put an end to the opioid epidemic, the Attorney General for Connecticut implied.
Despite the bankruptcy proceedings, states are likely to continue to seek settlement deals similar to the one made with Oklahoma.
For its part, the federal government maintains that for Americans with debilitating pain, OxyContin is an essential drug. Moreover, the plan to dissolve Purdue and run it under the auspices of the federal government also includes the production of life-saving overdose rescue drugs and medically-assisted treatment medications, which would be provided at steep discounts to communities hardest hit by the opioid crisis.