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Aug. 6, 2020

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In Our View: Accountability a must in Purdue Pharma case

The Columbian
Published:

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson is right to reject a flawed settlement between Purdue Pharma and 23 states that have sued the maker of OxyContin. The company’s role in perpetrating the opioid crisis that has afflicted the nation calls for justice in addition to a monetary reward.

“This deal completely leaves out any accountability, and I don’t think that’s right,” Ferguson said.

Indeed, accountability should be a part of any brokered agreement with the company. Washington officials could have agreed to share in a tentative settlement estimated between $10 billion and $12 billion between Purdue and the states — along with more than 2,000 cities, counties and tribal governments — that have sued it in federal court. But without some conciliation on the part of the pharmaceutical company, the result would be unsatisfactory.

“Importantly, Purdue’s valuation of the reported settlement does not come close to matching ours,” Ferguson wrote in a statement on Twitter. “In addition, this purported settlement does not include an apology to the families and communities devastated by Purdue and the Sacklers’ conduct.”

Purdue is owned by the Sackler family, and according to court documents the company has spent years undermining public health in the name of profits. States claim the company systematically underplayed the addiction risks of OxyContin while urging doctors to prescribe the drug.

As Vox.com explains: “By encouraging greater use of opioids for all sorts of pain, the company helped the pills proliferate. They ended up not just in patients’ hands, but in the hands of teens rummaging through their parents’ medicine cabinets, friends and family members of patients, and a black market where excess pills could be sold for a big markup.”

In one example, a Vancouver nurse practitioner prescribed $1.5 million worth of OxyContin in a six-month period in 2008. According to court documents, she accepted the company’s assertion of “pseudoaddiction” and would respond to a patient abusing opioids by prescribing more OxyContin.

That story was repeated throughout the country. Between 2006 and 2016, out-of-state drug companies shipped nearly 21 million opioid painkillers to two pharmacies in a West Virginia town of 2,900 people.

Those strategies have contributed to an opioid crisis that in 2017 resulted in 742 deaths in Washington. Nationally that year, more than 45,000 deaths were attributed to opioids. While many of those were the result of heroin use, the prevalence of painkiller addiction has contributed to a rise in heroin and fentanyl addiction.

Meanwhile, the New York attorney general alleged in a court filing last week that members of the Sackler family have used Swiss and other hidden accounts to transfer $1 billion to themselves. And Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that court documents show the Sacklers instructed Purdue Pharma to redirect $11 billion of assets to partnered companies and trusts benefitting the family. Purdue this week filed for bankruptcy.

Ferguson said: “The idea of settling is all fine and good, but it needs to be a settlement that does not leave the Sacklers as billionaires, never expressing so much as an apology for what went wrong.”

The risks are that an apology might never come and that pursuing the issue in court might result in a lower monetary reward. That is a risk worth taking. Purdue officials should be forced to defend their actions in court, and the saga should be prominently displayed as a lesson to other corporations that would view public health as nothing more than a golden goose.

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