The U.S. Dept. of Justice last month announced a settlement estimated at over $8.3 billion of its case against Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin.
The settlement is opposed by attorneys general in 25 states, including Massachusetts, on the grounds that it does not go far enough. The deal would restructure the now bankrupt Purdue Pharma, and the new company would operate as a public trust, continuing to manufacture opioids, though profits would go toward drug treatment and services, according to the Dept. of Justice’s office of public affairs.
Critics have called the settlement a bailout for the owners of Purdue, the Sackler family, whose personal assets may be protected under this deal. The Sacklers made billions from opioids they produced and aggressively marketed despite evidence of grave danger. And their company has admitted to three criminal charges: conspiracy to defraud the U.S., violation of the anti-kickback law, and marketing to doctors suspected of writing illegal prescriptions.
Over the past few years, federal, state, and local governments have filed lawsuits seeking damages from big pharma corporations, deploying lessons learned when the government went after big tobacco.
The four Outer Cape towns are part of that effort to recover damages. What the opioid epidemic has cost them includes additional police work, fire and rescue services, and payment of workers’ compensation. So far, 2,400 cases against the drug makers and retailers involved, including CVS and Walgreens, have been filed by cities and towns across the nation.
Eastham resident Janet Uhlar, whose son Josiah Tinney died in 2014 of an opioid overdose at the age of 26, believes communities will never recover anything close to what they’ve lost. Josiah’s doctor prescribed opioid narcotics for a shoulder problem for three years, she said, before surgery resolved his issue. By then, however, he was so addicted he could not stop taking the drugs.
Uhlar, who has kept up with the Sackler case, said, “I don’t think the Sacklers will put out any private funds. They took care of themselves and they will keep their billions.”
Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet, and Eastham, along with six other Cape Cod towns (Barnstable, Brewster, Dennis, Falmouth, Mashpee, and Sandwich), will be heard together in federal court with 124 other Massachusetts municipalities being represented by Richard Sandman, of Rodman, Rodman and Sandman, in Malden. Legal counsel for the towns from KP Law recommended Sandman’s representation.
Federal District Judge Dan Polsner, of the North District of Ohio, is presiding over the so-called opioid multidistrict litigation (MDL).
MDLs are a special federal process designed to streamline complex civil litigation. Such cases are generally resolved by settlements, according to Wen Shen, a U.S. legislative attorney, who prepared an explanation for Congress on the tangle of lawsuits against the opioid industry in November 2019.
Sandman said the federal case involving the Sacklers could eventually lead to some “trickle down” funds to state and local governments. But he hopes his lawsuit can bring more to local communities.
“What amount will filter down to municipalities is very much in the air,” Sandman said.
Sandman was a young man when he joined 50 attorneys seeking damages from the tobacco industry. The industry ended up paying more than $200 billion over 25 years. The money went to states for tobacco cessation programs, but did not go to individual towns, he added.
Sandman’s case before Judge Polsner won’t cost the towns anything in legal fees, but the attorney will take a portion of any settlement.
The approval by the FDA of OxyContin in 1996 jump-started a tragic chapter in American history, as all the other big pharmaceutical companies began marketing their own opioid products. Distributors and retailers like CVS and Walgreens also made billions selling the drugs. Meanwhile, the death toll from opioids in the U.S. has increased nearly every year since 1999. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states there have been more than 760,000 drug deaths from 1999 to 2018, more than 80 percent of them involving opioids.
Mass. Attorney General Maura Healey has been outspoken on this matter. On Oct. 21, she tweeted her response to the Purdue Pharma settlement: “DOJ failed. Justice in this case requires exposing the truth and holding the perpetrators accountable, not rushing a settlement to beat an election. I am not done with Purdue and the Sacklers, and I will never sell out the families who have been calling for justice for so long.”