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OxyContin Maker To Pay Out Billions In Civil, Criminal Penalties

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The makers of OxyContin, one of the drugs blamed for setting off the opioid crisis, will plead guilty to federal criminal charges. The Justice Department announced those charges against Purdue Pharma yesterday as part of an $8 billion settlement. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann is with us. Brian, good morning.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: How's the settlement going to work?

MANN: Yeah. So if it's approved by a federal bankruptcy judge, Steve, Purdue Pharma will admit to the three felony charges, including the charge that they misled doctors about the safety of medications like OxyContin. Over time, then, the company would pay out billions of dollars in civil and criminal penalties. Jeffrey Rosen, the deputy attorney general who outlined the agreement yesterday, says the Sackler family would also be forced to give up control of their company.

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JEFFREY ROSEN: Instead of being the owners of a major pharmaceutical company, they will have no stake in that company.

MANN: Now, that sounds like a lot, but critics are pointing to the fact that Purdue Pharma was already in big trouble, facing bankruptcy, struggling to hold on to employees and flooded with thousands of lawsuits tied to the improper marketing of opioids. And despite all that, under this deal, this federal deal, the Sacklers are going to walk away with most of their personal fortunes intact. By some estimates, they're worth as much as $10 billion because of opioid profits.

INSKEEP: Wow.

MANN: They'll pay a fraction of that in penalties, only about $225 million out of their own pockets. And, Steve, there are no criminal charges against them. The Sacklers here admit to no personal wrongdoing.

INSKEEP: Well, how do prosecutors explain that the deal would include no criminal charges and the Sacklers not entirely but mostly giving up a pile of liabilities rather than a penalty they would really feel?

MANN: Yeah. Deputy Attorney General Rosen was asked about this yesterday, and he says these penalties go as far as the government can right now, holding Purdue and the Sacklers accountable.

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ROSEN: There is no law that says if you've done something wrong, we should just simply strip somebody of all their assets in existence. That's not how it works. It has to be that we are looking at specific acts of wrongdoing, civilly or criminally, and then having a proportionate response.

MANN: But a lot of people, including more than two dozen state attorneys general, dozens of members of Congress, advocates for people suffering from addiction, they all say this isn't a proportionate response. They say members of the Sackler family played a personal role pushing the prescription opioid boom, developing these illegal and deceptive marketing practices that made Purdue Pharma so profitable. Letitia James is New York state attorney general, and she's suing members of the Sackler family. Her team tracked hundreds of millions of dollars in opioid profits that the Sacklers sent to offshore accounts. She told NPR this Justice Department deal doesn't go nearly far enough.

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LETITIA JAMES: Doesn't account for the hundreds of thousands of deaths of millions of addictions caused by Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, all of destruction that they have caused. It basically allows billionaires to keep their billions without any accounting for how much they really made.

MANN: James says her state probe of the Sackler family will continue. Meanwhile, there's one more detail of this settlement that's sparking a lot of anger. It turns out Purdue Pharma doesn't actually have enough money left to pay out the billions of dollars agreed to in this settlement. So the plan is for the government to reorganize Purdue Pharma into what's known as a public benefit company. That means profits from future sales of opioids like OxyContin would be used to pay for drug treatment and rehabilitation programs around the country. Greg McNeil lives in Ohio, one of the states hit hardest by the opioid epidemic. And he lost his son Sam to an overdose five years ago. He says this idea of the government getting into the opioid business now after it's caused so much harm, he says it just feels wrong.

GREG MCNEIL: It just seems ill advised having the government enter into that business. Gosh, there's something about that that just doesn't add up to me at all.

MANN: And I should say, Steve, 25 state attorneys general agree. They signed a letter last week. They sent it to Attorney General William Barr arguing that this arrangement is ethically wrong and could shelter Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers from future criminal or civil liability.

INSKEEP: Brian, can it at least be said for the deal that there's some money here that might help people harmed by the opioid epidemic?

MANN: Yeah, definitely that's what the Justice Department is saying. So let's take stock for a second. Nearly 72,000 people died from overdoses last year. This is still ongoing. A lot of those were opioid deaths. What U.S. attorneys say is if this deal is finalized by the bankruptcy court, it would mean extraordinary new resources for states and cities and tribal governments struggling to keep people alive. But one thing everyone agrees to here is that this problem is so big now, affecting so many Americans, they say the $8 billion from Purdue Pharma is really just a drop in the bucket.

INSKEEP: Brian Mann is NPR's addiction correspondent. Brian, thanks.

MANN: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 22, 2020 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous headline misspelled OxyContin as OxiContin.