State Attorney General Bob Ferguson is right to reject a proposed settlement with OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma. Accepting the deeply flawed deal would do a disservice to Washington individuals, families and communities devastated by this scourge of opioid abuse — both strategically and as a matter of principle.
Purdue filed for bankruptcy last weekend, a step in a prospective agreement between the company, the Sackler families and some of the 2,600 plaintiffs suing the Connecticut pharmaceutical company, including 24 state attorneys general. But only about half the states that have filed suit have signed on to the proposed deal, with several AGs, including Ferguson, saying they will formally object to the arrangement in bankruptcy court.
Under the proposal, Purdue shareholders would sell the company, rolling the assets into a trust or other public-benefit entity to be governed by a board selected by claimants and approved by the bankruptcy court. The Sacklers would contribute at least an additional $3 billion from the sales of other U.S.-based pharmaceutical businesses.
Purdue’s estimate — that the settlement will yield more than $10 billion dollars — is speculative, based on the sale of assets Ferguson and others believe will actually yield much less to be divvied up among thousands of state, local and tribal governments, insurance companies, individuals and others who have taken Purdue to court.
Even so, what is most striking are not the agreement’s terms, but its omissions.
The deal involves no public accounting of the pharmaceutical giant’s alleged role in fueling the opioid crisis that has been ravaging Washington communities. It pointedly omits any admission of wrongdoing, let alone an apology for what has laid waste to families and cost government social services billions. Indeed, Purdue is asking the bankruptcy court to indemnify the company, the Sackler family and all past and present leadership not only from all ongoing lawsuits, but any future claims.
In a statement submitted to the court on Monday, the Sackler family continued to “vigorously” deny any liability for the nation’s opioid epidemic. It accused media and plaintiffs of painting a “highly inaccurate portrait” and characterized the public debate as misleading and mostly unproductive.
That belies the well-documented facts around the marketing of this drug — and the withholding of crucial health effects — from health-care providers and unsuspecting patients.
In the bankruptcy petition, the company estimates it is spending more than $2 million a week on legal fees and argues that defending thousands of lawsuits is “neither an efficient, nor an equitable, way to resolve their alleged liability.”
Its sniffing effrontery is a slap in the face to the thousands of Washington families that have lost loved ones to opioid-related death and the countless more suffering ongoing addiction.
It should fall to a civil court — not a bankruptcy judge — to decide whether Purdue and the Sacklers are truly blameless. The company’s agents must account for their actions in the clear light of day.
As Ferguson said in an interview this week, “A trial is about accountability. It’s about money, of course, but also it’s about transparency — about what the hell this company knew and when they knew it.”
The Attorney General’s office is actively preparing for a February trial, taking depositions and conducting discovery, Ferguson said. The AG also has filed suit against three large pharmaceutical distributors for failing to halt suspicious opioid orders. According to the AG’s office, the three distributors — McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen — supplied more than 2 billion opioid pills to Washington from 2006-2014, including more than 250,000 suspicious orders that ought to have been reported to the Drug Enforcement Agency.
That is the right approach. More than money, the people impacted by this crisis deserve answers. If companies failed to protect the public from a dangerous substance, even as abuse rates spiraled out of control, a thorough and public accounting is needed to ensure it never happens again.