HUNTINGTON — After a settlement was announced last week between OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma and the federal government surrounding its marketing of opioids, West Virginia experts in the field question if it will be enough to curve the future of the opioid crisis.
Earlier last week the Justice Department announced Purdue Pharma will plead guilty to three felonies and pay a $8.3 billion settlement, probably ending federal probes of its questionable marketing of OxyContin, a highly addictive opioid painkiller blamed for starting the opioid epidemic.
The plea calls for the company to admit it conspired to defraud the government by misleading the Drug Enforcement Administration about the effectiveness of its opioid-monitoring systems. It also will admit to conspiring to violate federal kickback statutes by paying sham speaker fees to doctors who encouraged others to prescribe the drug.
West Virginia University College of Law professors and attorneys Patrick McGinley and Suzanne Weise successfully represented HD Media in its quest to force the release of data from the Drug Enforcement Agency detailing how many pills opioid firms shipped to West Virginia and around the nation for several years.
The data showed 2006 to 2014, more than 1.1 billion prescription pain pills were supplied to West Virginia, peaking in 2012 before the number of pills shipped decreased. As the number of pills shipped the state started to decrease, those who developed drug-dependency issues turned to illicit street drugs, like heroin, to cope.
As part of Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy, nearly 4,000 notices have been sent to West Virginian children believed to born with neonatal abstinence syndrome due to their mother’s drug use who might have a claim against the company.
During those years, the number of overdose deaths in the state skyrocketed, either from prescription drugs or illicit drugs, and Cabell County led in the number of overdoses in the state for many of those years.
McGinley questioned if the settlement was enough when estimates state’s future costs of treating substance use disorder will total $2.15 trillion.
“This was literally a legal drug cartel where billions of dollars were made selling these addictive drugs without any serious law enforcement actions, as opposed to what happens when you’ve got El Chapo or Pablo Escobar, who are public enemy No. 1,” he said. “That’s why it’s important for the public to know how this epidemic evolved and grew and who the players were.”
The company still faces hundreds of civil claims made by local and state governments, as well as individuals. Purdue had previously proposed a $10 billion settlement for those claims. The company filed for Chapter 11 protection in a New York bankruptcy court as a result of the claims.
The settlement absolves Purdue’s owners, members of the Sackler family, from individual civil liability, although they will pay $225 million out of pocket as part of the settlement.
National Prescription Opiate Litigation Plaintiffs’ Executive Committee attorneys, including Paul T. Farrell Jr. of Farrell Law in Huntington, which represents more than 2,800 governments accusing opioid manufacturers and distributors of fueling the opioid crisis, said the Sackler family and their company were directly responsible for the crisis. The agreement will not end claims against other companies, they said.
“We are in favor of using a public trust as a vehicle to distribute company funds to the communities that have been damaged by their actions, but there is much more work to be done through the bankruptcy proceedings to ensure the resources go where they are needed most,” they said in a released statement.
Huntington and Cabell County are two of those suing the company, which was added to their opioid lawsuit last year in an amended complaint detailing local accusations against the company and Sacklers.
The complaint said until the mid-1990s, opioids were rarely prescribed for chronic pain conditions because they were believed to be too addictive, until Purdue and the Sacklers began to pour money into marketing with unresearched information distributed to doctors, pharmacists and citizens.
John Temple, a professor at the Reed College of Media at West Virginia University and author of “American Pain,” which chronicles how a ring of doctors helped to unleash the opioid epidemic by operating the nation’s largest pain clinic, said the over-production and over-prescription of opioids was directly sparked by Purdue’s “misinformation campaign” around the effects of the drug more than two decades ago.
“For years, the federal government gave companies like Purdue free rein to steadily increase the amount of opioids that are manufactured each year,” he said. “Why should we trust the federal government to now make good public health decisions about the operation of this company?”
In the complaint, Scott Hadland, a pediatrician and researcher at the Grayken Center for Addiction Medicine, said studies showed areas hit the hardest by the opioid crisis were the same areas targeted by that marketing
Cabell County received 32 times more dollars in opioid marketing than the national average, or about $1,000 per person.
The defendants’ misrepresentations ranged from stating the risk for addiction as being low, signs of addictive behavior are “pseudo addiction” and addiction is easily treated, among other things, during extensive marketing campaigns, it added.
Cabell County and Huntington are set to go to trial Jan. 4 against three opioid distributors — AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson — on claims they helped fuel the epidemic.