As Purdue Pharma Agrees to Settle with the DOJ, Revisit Its Role in the Opioid Crisis | Opioids, Inc. | FRONTLINE | PBS

In the latest chapter of a complex legal battle over who is responsible for the nation’s opioid crisis, Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of the notorious painkiller OxyContin, has arrived at an $8.3 billion settlement with the federal government, pending court approval.

Announced in an Oct. 21 Department of Justice press conference, the settlement, if approved, resolves the federal government’s civil and criminal probes into Purdue Pharma, which is currently in bankruptcy; an additional settlement resolves a federal civil case against Purdue Pharma’s owners, the Sackler family.

“It’s also important to note that this resolution does not prohibit future criminal or civil penalties against Purdue Pharma’s executives or employees,” Jeffrey A. Rosen, the U.S. deputy attorney general, said at the press conference.

Under the settlement, Purdue Pharma admits guilt on three felony charges involving conspiring to defraud the U.S. and break anti-kickback regulations in how it marketed opioids. The settlement involves a $3.5 billion criminal fine and a $2 billion criminal forfeiture, as well as a civil payment of $2.8 billion, though actual monetary payments could be substantially less, once the company’s value is factored in. Separately, the Sacklers themselves will make a $225 million payment to the U.S.

The settlement “will require that the company be dissolved and no longer exist in its present form,” Rosen said, with the Sacklers barred from any controlling or owning role moving forward. Instead, if the settlement is approved by bankruptcy court, the company’s assets would become “owned by a trust for the benefit of the American public,” Rosen said. The new company would still be able to manufacture opioid drugs but would also be required to produce large quantities of medicines to treat and respond to addiction and overdoses, and would need to offer the latter as donations or “at cost.”

“Purdue deeply regrets and accepts responsibility for the misconduct detailed by the Department of Justice in the agreed statement of facts,” Steve Miller, chairman of Purdue Pharma’s board, said in a statement.

In a separate statement, Sackler family members who served on the Purdue Pharma board said they had “acted ethically and lawfully” and that they “reached today’s agreement in order to facilitate a global resolution that directs substantial funding to communities in need, rather than to years of legal proceedings.”

The statement also said, “Regarding the plea agreement between the government and Purdue, no member of the Sackler family was involved in that conduct or served in a management role at Purdue during that time period.”

A number of states’ attorneys general spoke out against the terms of the proposed settlement as inadequate and vowed to continue to pursue cases against the company and the Sacklers, which the federal settlements do not resolve.

Purdue Pharma has long been accused of being a driver of America’s opioid crisis. FRONTLINE’s 2016 documentary Chasing Heroin investigated how that crisis came to be, examining allegations about Purdue Pharma’s role in the early years of what has been called the worst drug epidemic in U.S. history.

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OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma may settle legal claims with a new ‘public trust’ that would still be dedicated to profit

<span class="caption">Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen announced a settlement between the Justice Department and opioid maker Purdue on Oct. 21.</span> <span class="attribution"><a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="https://newsroom.ap.org/detail/USOpioidCrisisPurduePharma/d69562dc33ef441d83f32833f91c4d57/photo?boardId=37be9465fcce45d283d5431cccb20a6a&st=boards&mediaType=audio,photo,video,graphic&sortBy=&dateRange=Anytime&totalCount=36&currentItemNo=2" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Yuri Gripas/Pool via AP">Yuri Gripas/Pool via AP</a></span>
Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen announced a settlement between the Justice Department and opioid maker Purdue on Oct. 21. Yuri Gripas/Pool via AP

Purdue Pharma, the company that makes OxyContin and other potentially addictive prescription opioids, has agreed to plead guilty to three felony counts and reached a settlement potentially worth at least US$8.3 billion with the Justice Department.

The deal could clear the way for Purdue to transform from a profit-seeking privately held company into a public trust that serves the public good, as the company has proposed.

But the settlement is subject to the approval of the federal judge overseeing Purdue’s bankruptcy case. And it may not resolve the thousands of lawsuits Purdue faces for its role in creating the opioid crisis. Notably, the attorneys general from 25 states called on the government a week before the Justice Department announced the deal to simply force the sale of the drugmaker to a new owner instead.

I study the history of prescription drugs (and I have served as a paid consultant and expert witness in opioid litigation). Although there are some recent efforts to establish nonprofit drugmakers to help make certain pharmaceuticals more readily available, I know of no historical precedent for a big drugmaker like Purdue becoming a nonprofit public health provider.

But two similarly ambitious efforts to build alternatives to the profit-driven pharmaceutical model during and immediately after World War II suggest the potential limits of how well this arrangement might work.

Antibiotics

Penicillin was discovered in 1928 but did not come into use until World War II. It was the first antibiotic: a genuinely revolutionary class of drugs that vanquished previously incurable infectious illnesses.

Because of penicillin’s importance for the war effort, the federal government played an active role in its development. Federal scientists developed ways to mass-produce it, federal agencies persuaded reluctant pharmaceutical companies to manufacture it and the government’s “penicillin czar” decided which patients would receive the precious drug.

Despite the high stakes and the faith in centralized planning, no one at that time appears to have even considered the possibility of noncommercial or nonprofit development of antibiotics.

As was the case with wartime goods such as rubber and tanks, private companies with federal contracts made penicillin. As was also the case with other wartime goods, the arrangement was an unqualified success. It dramatically increased production, and allocated the antibiotic so as to best serve the war effort.

For penicillin, as with other goods, federal economic controls quickly faded after the war. As the medical historian Scott Podolsky has observed, drugmakers, freed from government restraints, unleashed an avalanche of brand-name antibiotics whose high-powered marketing campaigns encouraged the overuse and misuse of the new medicines.

Interestingly, the Sackler brothers got their start by selling antibiotics. The Sacklers, future owners of Purdue Pharma, were pioneers of medical advertising who abandoned earlier restraints and advised their sales representatives to see physicians as “prey.”

The Veterans Administration and the Public Health Service sought to keep

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