Family behind OxyContin attests to its role in opioid crisis

Members of the family that owns OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma have acknowledged that the drug has had a role in the opioid crisis but have stopped short of apologizing or admitting wrongdoing

Two of the owners of the company that makes OxyContin acknowledged to a congressional committee on Thursday that the powerful prescription painkiller has played a role in the national opioid crisis but stopped short of apologizing or admitting wrongdoing as they made a rare appearance in a public forum.

“I want to express my family’s deep sadness about the opioid crisis,” David Sackler, a member of the family that owns Purdue Pharma, said at a congressional hearing. “OxyContin is a medicine that Purdue intended to help people, and it has helped, and continues to help, millions of Americans.”

“I know the loss of any family member or loved one is terribly painful and nothing is more tragic than the loss of a child,” Kathe Sackler told the U.S. House Oversight Committee. “As a mother, my heart breaks for the parents who have lost their children. I am so terribly sorry for your pain.”

The two, descendants of two of the three brothers who bought Purdue nearly 70 years ago, appeared before the committee in a video hearing held amid coronavirus restrictions.

They took the step after the committee’s chairwoman, Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, threatened to issue subpoenas. Purdue CEO Craig Landau testified, saying the company accepts “full responsibility,” in contrast to the family members.

Even before any of them testified, committee members from both political parties blasted them. Maloney said: “Most despicably, Purdue and the Sacklers worked to deflect the blame for all that suffering away from themselves, and onto the very people struggling with the OxyContin addiction.”

James Comer, a Republican from Kentucky, a hard-hit state, said, “The Sackler family profited immensely form the deaths of millions of Americans.” But Comer worried that holding the hearing now could delay justice for the people harmed by the drug as litigation swirls.

Parents of people who died from using the drug also appeared via video to tell about their children.

The hearing came three weeks after Purdue pleaded guilty to three criminal charges as part of a sweeping settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The company agreed to pay more than $8 billion in forfeitures and penalties, while members of the Sackler family would have to pay $225 million to the government. No family member would be criminally prosecuted under the Justice Department settlement, although the deal leaves open that possibility.

The settlement requires the company to hand over just $225 million of the $8 billion total to the government as long as Purdue makes good on plans to settle thousands of lawsuits filed by state and local governments, a matter that is now in bankruptcy court. State and local governments blame the company’s marketing efforts for contributing to an opioid addiction and overdose crisis that has been linked to 470,000 deaths in the U.S. over the past two decades.

The Stamford, Connecticut-based company and the Sacklers have proposed resolving the lawsuits by transforming Purdue into a public benefit corporation, with its profits used to combat the opioid epidemic.

Some members of Congress and attorneys general for about half the states oppose that plan, which includes a requirement for Sackler family members to pay at least $3 billion in addition to giving up control of the company. Court documents show they have received more than $12 billion from Purdue since OxyContin was released. A third branch of the family sold their stake in the company before the blockbuster painkiller was developed in the 1990s.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat, said in a statement to the committee that the proposed punishment is not enough, especially since the company was fined in 2007 for similar crimes.

“It asked Purdue and the Sacklers to pay another fine. DOJ asked the Sacklers to pay back less than 2% of their reported wealth. No individual was charged, or put on trial, or sent to prison,” Healey said. “That is not good enough.”

Charlotte Bismuth, a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan who is now an author and anti-opioid activist, said she is hoping the House Oversight Committee will ask whether the Sacklers’ lawyers had special access to Justice Department attorneys, and if so whether that helped them get a better deal.

In a letter to the Oversight Committee this week, Temple University law professor Jonathan Lipson said the committee should push for family members to contribute more though the bankruptcy process.

“Purdue’s reorganization may be beneficial in certain ways,” he wrote, “but any reorganization plan that exonerates the Sacklers without meaningful public scrutiny of, and accountability for, their actions would be a slap in the faces of thousands of victims of the opioid crisis and a misuse of the chapter 11 system.”

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