Purdue Pharma and US states agree to $6bn opioid settlement

Settlement included rare apology from Sackler family and opportunity for victims' families to speak directly to them

A pharmacist holds prescription painkiller OxyContin made by Purdue Pharma. Reuters

OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma reached a settlement on Thursday with several US states and thousands of local governments over the company's role in the nation’s deadly opioid crisis, with the Sackler family owners boosting their cash contribution to as much as $6 billion.

The deal follows an earlier settlement that had been appealed by eight states and the District of Columbia. They agreed to sign on after the Sacklers kicked in more cash and accepted other terms, including apologising. In exchange, the family would be protected from civil lawsuits.

In all, the plan could be more than $10bn over time. It calls for members of the Sackler family to give up control of the Stamford, Connecticut-based company so it can be turned into a new entity with profits used to fight the crisis, not fuel it.

An apology is something Sackler family members have unequivocally not offered in the past. And victims are to have a forum in court to address the Sacklers — something they have not been able to do in a public setting.

The settlement, in a mediator’s report filed in US Bankruptcy Court in White Plains, New York, still must be approved by a judge.

“The Sackler families are pleased to have reached a settlement with additional states that will allow very substantial additional resources to reach people and communities in need,” the apology reads.

“The families have consistently affirmed that settlement is by far the best way to help solve a serious and complex public health crisis.

“While the families have acted lawfully in all respects, they sincerely regret that OxyContin, a prescription medicine that continues to help people suffering from chronic pain, unexpectedly became part of an opioid crisis that has brought grief and loss to far too many families and communities.”

The new plan was hammered out with attorneys general from the eight states and Washington, DC, who had opposed the earlier one, arguing that it did not properly hold Sackler family members accountable.

Though members of the Sackler family would be protected from lawsuits over opioids, the deal would not shield them from criminal charges, though there’s no indication any are forthcoming.

Individual victims of the opioid crisis and their survivors are to share a $750 million fund, a key provision not found in other opioid settlements. About 149,000 people made claims in advance and could qualify for shares from the fund; others with opioid use disorder and the survivors of those who have died are shut out.

Jayde Newton helps to set up cardboard gravestones with the names of victims of opioid abuse outside a New York courthouse during a Purdue Pharma bankruptcy hearing in 2021. AP

That amount is unchanged in the new plan, but states will be able to create funds they can use to compensate victims beyond that, if they choose.

Other new provisions include an agreement from Sackler family members that they won’t fight when institutions attempt to take the names off of buildings that were funded with the family’s support. And additional company documents are to be made public.

Most of the money is to flow to state and local governments, Native American tribes and some hospitals, with the requirement that it be used to battle an opioid crisis that has been linked to more than 500,000 deaths in the US over the past two decades.

Purdue, the originator of time-release versions of the powerful prescription painkillers, is the highest-profile company out of many that have faced lawsuits over the crisis. It has twice pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to its business practices around OxyContin.

The latest announcement follows another major settlement late last week, when drugmaker Johnson & Johnson and three distributors finalised a settlement that will send $26bn over time to virtually every state and local government throughout the US.

If the latest Purdue deal wins approval, the two settlements will give local communities that have been devastated by opioid addiction a significant boost to help them combat the epidemic.

In a separate push to hold the Sacklers accountable for the opioid crisis, a group of seven US senators, all Democrats, wrote the US Department of Justice in February asking prosecutors to consider criminal charges against family members.

Purdue Pharma headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut. AP
Updated: March 03, 2022, 5:35 PM