Even if every last dime was drained from those who profited from the sale of the OxyContin that amount wouldn’t come close to justly compensating the families and individuals who lost loved ones, livelihoods and years to the opioid crisis.
Nor would it satisfy the debt owed to communities and state and local governments who were left to cover the costs of the crisis in emergency responses, medical care, law enforcement, homelessness and lost productivity.
Even recognizing that gulf, the announcement Monday night — that Purdue Pharma, the maker of the prescription opioid OxyContin, and its owners in the Sackler family were boosting a settlement offer in its bankruptcy plan by about $1 billion over an earlier proposal — wasn’t finding favor among the attorneys general of 23 states and the District of Columbia, including Washington state, who had sued the drugmaker on behalf of more than 2,900 cities, counties, tribal governments and hospitals, including the City of Everett, Snohomish County and the Tulalip Tribes.
The bankruptcy plan — which must meet the approval of a judge in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York — proposes to distribute about $10 billion over a decade to plaintiffs, the Associated Press reported. Under terms of the settlement, the Sackler family would turn over domestic operation of Purdue Pharma to a nonprofit board, monitored by government-appointed trustees.
Yet digging deeper into the terms should further sour anyone on the deal. Purdue would pay only $500 million up front of a $750 million sum to settle hundreds of thousands of personal injury claims, with most receiving an average of about $5,600, money that can’t be considered fair compensation for families and individuals.
The bulk of the $10 billion would dribble out over a decade, and about $4 billion of the figure wouldn’t be in cash — sent to local governments to fund opioid response and rehabilitation efforts — but would be in distribution of reduced-cost supplies of medications used in response to overdoses and in opioid recovery.
The scale doesn’t come close to balancing.
Count that $10 billion against the $631 billion that the opioid crisis cost the U.S. economy between 2015 and 2018, and the estimated annual cost of $172 billion to $214 billion, according to a 2019 Society of Actuaries report.
Count that $10 billion against the more than 470,000 opioid-related deaths in the U.S. since 2000, and a record 50,000 such deaths in 2019.
Count that $10 billion against the $10 billion to $11 billion in profits that the Sackler family withdrew from Purdue between 2008 and 2017 and directed to partner companies, foreign holdings and family trusts at the height of legal scrutiny over OxyContin, according to The Washington Post and past news reports.
And count that $10 billion against the provision that Purdue and the Sackler family are not required to admit wrongdoing.
Purdue can’t be blamed for the entirety of the opioid crisis; many current overdose deaths are blamed on the illicit synthetic opioid, fentanyl. Still, Purdue bears much of the responsibility, especially in fostering new addictions among patients who sought treatment for pain.
Purdue is culpable for wrongdoing because it put continuation of its profits above a growing public health crisis. Purdue began selling OxyContin 25 years ago, dismissing doctors’ concerns about the opioids’ addictive properties and encouraging them to keep pushing pills to treat patients’ pain. Court documents, the AP said, show company officials continued to push to maintain sales even as it became clear the drug was being abused.
The bankruptcy judge should look critically at the proposal from lawyers for Purdue and the Sacklers, as he should the threat from company officials that if the plan unravels the company’s assets could be tangled up for years in litigation. That threat loses its punch when considered against the slow and paltry roll of compensation promised over the next decade.
“The Sacklers became billionaires by causing a national tragedy. Now they’re trying to get away with it,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said in a joint statement from the attorneys general. “We’re going to keep fighting for the accountability that families all across this country deserve.”
They should; not because a settlement can be reached that will come close to equaling what has been lost in the pursuit of profit, but because no one should be allowed to profit in the face of those immense losses.