‘It’s staggering:’ South Shore officials blame Purdue Pharma following $4 billion settlement

July 9, 2021

By The Patriot Ledger

“The number of dead, the number of orphans, the number of parents burying their adult children because of this misconduct, is staggering,” Michael Morrissey, the Norfolk County District Attorney, said.

Massachusetts and more than a dozen other states have reached a $4 billion settlement with Purdue Pharma, the developer of OxyContin, for the role the pharmaceutical company and its owners played in fueling the opioid crisis.

Attorney General Maura Healey’s office on Thursday announced the agreement, which forces Purdue to make about 33 million documents public and mandates the company shut down or be sold by 2024. It also bans the family behind Purdue Pharma, the Sacklers, from the opioid business going forward.

The settlement orders the Sacklers to pay $4.3 billion to various entities, including $90 million to combat the opioid epidemic in Massachusetts.

Healey, Gov. Charlie Baker and families affected by the opioid crisis held a press conference Thursday afternoon to address the agreement and impact.

“You can’t put a price tag on heartache and hurt… I’m pleased we have money coming in that will go to good and important use,” Healey said.

“We do have enormous amounts of work to do on addiction and behavioral health, and this fund will be a tremendous asset to families and practitioners and people dealing with substance use disorder,” Baker added.

An ongoing crisis

The state says nearly 19,000 people lost their lives to drug overdose between 2010 and 2019, and opioid overdose deaths reached new levels in Massachusetts in 2020. Last year, 2,035 people died of confirmed overdose deaths, and predictive modeling suggests there will be another 66 to 70 deaths in 2020 once those cases are finalized, a May report revealed. 

“It is not letting up — it is increasing,” Julie Burns, executive director of substance use nonprofit RIZE Massachusetts, said. “The COVID pandemic did not help matters: people were isolated, they were unable to seek treatment and they may have been using in different ways that are more risky. They may have been alone, they may not have been somewhere where someone could check on them and they may have not have access to Naloxone. A number of factors taken together really did make things worse.”

Michael Morrissey, the Norfolk County District Attorney, said overdose remains the largest source of preventable deaths in Norfolk County.

Local experts say the part Purdue Pharma played in spurring the opioid crisis cannot be ignored.

“There is unprecedented evidence that they were culpable in many ways,” Burns said. “It’s an important day for Massachusetts and for all the states part of the settlement. It won’t bring people back, but it is definitely bringing back more transparency, more accountability and hopefully some closure to those who have lost loved ones.”

Morrissey said “mitigating the damage done” by Purdue has been a “central task” in his decade as district attorney. He said the county has spent thousands of dollars to train and equip police officers to deal with overdoses, organized safe prescribing conferences to undo work done by Purdue representatives and put prescription drug disposal boxes in every police station.

“The number of dead, the number of orphans, the number of parents burying their adult children because of this misconduct, is staggering – in Norfolk County and nationally. It has been a defining crisis for families and communities across the South Shore,” he said in a statement. “The revised settlement reportedly includes a larger financial settlement from the Sackler family and will involve access to millions of internal company documents, which will allow authorities to understand the full scope of this misconduct and, ideally, be able to guard against it in the future.”

Newsmaker: Lt. Patrick Glynn fights against addiction

Quincy Police Detective Lt. Patrick Glynn has worked for a decade with addiction experts and medics to improve the way police departments interact with drug users. Glynn spearheaded the creation of the city’s Narcan program for dealing with drug overdoses, and his work has been dubbed “The Quincy Model” and replicated at departments across the country. 

“Maybe (the settlement) will bring some closure for some families, but nothing is ever going to bring back a loved one,” he said. “We still have to keep doing our work.” 

Burns and Glynn said they hope the money the settlement brings will be used to start paving the road toward an end to the opioid crisis. Burns said it will be critically important that the money is used wisely and responsibly, unlike that of the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement between 46 states and the District of Columbia and the major tobacco companies. 

That money — $206 billion over the first 25 years — was not earmarked for tobacco-related causes and Burns said less than 2.3 percent of it went to tobacco use prevention and cessation.

“Can $90 million make a dent? One would hope,” she said. “The state of Massachusetts has already set up a trust fund so this wont go the way of the tobacco settlement. They are prepped and ready to go, and I think taking a very long view in treatment, recovery and prevention will make sure this money is well spent.”

The search for accountability

Healey first sued the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma in June 2018, alleging that they “engaged in a deadly, deceptive scheme to sell opioids in Massachusetts” and profited from the drug epidemic they helped create.

Healey’s complaint alleged that Purdue “created the epidemic and profited from it through a web of illegal deceit” by misleading doctors and patients to get more people using their drugs, at “higher and more dangerous doses” and for longer periods of time, as well as by deploying falsehoods to keep patients away from “safer alternatives.”

A total of 671 Massachusetts residents who filled prescriptions for Purdue opioids between 2009 and 2019 later died of an opioid overdose, according to the suit. According to Healey’s office, Purdue sent sales representatives to Massachusetts doctors offices, clinics and hospitals more than 150,000 times between 2008 and 2019.

Baker said the epidemic had already been raging for years when he started campaigning for governor in 2013. He said it wasn’t an issue that he or Healey ran on, but people approached them constantly to discuss how opioids effected their families.

“We heard about it more often than not because people would hang around after the public forum was over and talk about it quietly. They didn’t want to make a spectacle out of their family’s pain, and the Sacklers benefited from that over and over,” he said.

Purdue sought bankruptcy protection in 2019 as a way to settle about 3,000 lawsuits it faced from state and local governments — including Quincy — and other entities.  

The court filing came from a mediator appointed by the bankruptcy court and shows that members of the Sackler family agreed to increase their cash contribution to the settlement by $50 million. They also will allow $175 million held in Sackler family charities to go toward abating the crisis.

In all, Sackler family members are contributing $4.5 billion in cash and assets in the charitable funds toward the settlement. They are not admitting any wrongdoing and no court has found any wrongdoing by a family member.

“This resolution to the mediation is an important step toward providing substantial resources for people and communities in need,” the Sacklers said in a statement provided to The Patriot Ledger. “The Sackler family hopes these funds will help achieve that goal.”

Healey, who was the first attorney general to sue members of the Sackler family, praised the modified deal Thursday. She pointed to the $90 million the state would receive and the way the company could waive attorney-client privilege to release hundreds of thousands of confidential communications with lawyers about its tactics for selling opioids and other matters.

“While I know this resolution does not bring back loved ones or undo the evil of what the Sacklers did, forcing them to turn over their secrets by providing all the documents, forcing them to repay billions, forcing the Sacklers out of the opioid business, and shutting down Purdue will help stop anything like this from ever happening again,” Healey said.

Is it enough?

State Sen. John Keenan, a Quincy Democrat, is calling for individual members of the Sackler family to face criminal charges for their role in the opioid epidemic. 

“While the bankruptcy court settlement announced today is substantial, I believe that members of the Sackler family who directed and profited from the marketing of oxycontin should face federal criminal charges as well,” Keenan said in a statement.

Weymouth and Quincy are among more than 1,700 other communities across the country that collectively are suing 16 drug manufactures and distributors who officials say promoted opioids.

The suit, known collectively as the National Prescription Opiate Litigation, states that the opioid epidemic started as a corporate business plan that has drained local resources as police, fire and health departments struggle to keep up with a crisis that continues to claim thousands of lives across the country.

Several Quincy officials said they could not comment on the settlement Thursday, citing ongoing litigation.