Healey praised for hard line on opioid settlement

Maura Healey

BOSTON — Counselors for recovering addicts and their families are among those applauding Attorney General Maura Healey’s refusal to sign onto a multi-billion settlement with Purdue Pharma over its role in the nation’s opioid addiction crisis.

The tentative agreement announced earlier this week is supported by 27 states and attorneys for about 2,000 local governments. It would have Purdue, the company that makes OxyContin, file for a structured bankruptcy and pay as much as $12 billion, with $3 billion coming from its owners, the Sackler family, according to news reports.

The family would give up ownership of the company and chip in another $1.5 billion by selling a separate pharmaceutical company.

Healey and several other state attorneys general are not part of the settlement and vow to continue a legal battle against the Sacklers and the company.

In a statement, Healey said “families who were hurt by Purdue and the Sacklers have spoken loud and clear that this case demands real accountability.”

“It’s critical that all the facts come out about what this company and its executives and directors did, that they apologize for the harm they caused, and that no one profits from breaking the law,” Healey’s statement read. “These families deserve justice.”

Joanne Peterson, executive director of Learning to Cope, a nonprofit that counsels families of people struggling with addiction, said she supports Healey’s position and wants to see the Sacklers pay.

“Part of the problem all along is these companies have been able to pay their way out of this mess,” said Peterson. “They continue to get away with it by opening their wallet.”

Peterson said she believes the litigation needs to go before a judge and jury so that the public can “learn the truth” about the role pharmaceutical firms have played in the opioid crisis.

“There’s a lot of evidence that still hasn’t been seen, and the Sacklers don’t want that to become public,” she said. “If they settle, that truth will never come out.”

Colleen “Cole” Welch, who oversees the Merrimack Valley Prevention and Substance Abuse Project, called the settlement a “slap in the face” to families who’ve lost loved ones and for those who continue to struggle with addiction.

She too wants to see litigation move forward.

“There is no price tag whatsoever that can be put on the lives that have been lost and the families that are still grieving,” she said.

The lawsuits against the Connecticut company argue that Purdue’s aggressive marketing of OxyContin ignored addiction risks and led to widespread opioid prescriptions. Attorneys general for Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania are also among the 16 saying they’re not part of the agreement.

Opioid addiction has contributed to the deaths of some 400,000 Americans over the past two decades, according to federal data.

In Massachusetts, more than 9,000 people have died from opioid-related overdoes in the past five years, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Gov. Charlie Baker, whose administration has worked with the AG’s office to build a case against the Sacklers and Purdue, told reporters on Thursday that Healey is “doing the right thing” by not settling.

“I know that the other folks that are involved in this settlement think they are delivering an appropriate level of punishment to the folks at Purdue and the Sackler family. I don’t,” he said. “I’m glad the AG didn’t settle for that deal.”

In a statement, members of the Sackler family said that it “continues to work with all plaintiffs on reaching a comprehensive resolution to its opioid litigation that will deliver billions of dollars and vital opioid overdose rescue medicines to communities across the country impacted by the opioid crisis.”

“This is the most effective way to address the urgency of the current public health crisis, and to fund real solutions, not endless litigation,” they said.

In 2007, Purdue Pharma agreed to pay some $600 million in fines and other payments to settle criminal charges against three executives alleging that they misled regulators, doctors and patients about the drug’s risk of addiction. Attorney General Martha Coakley, Healey’s predecessor, was among those signed off on that settlement.

John Rosenthal, co-founder and chairman of the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, said the 2007 settlement did nothing to curb rampant opioid abuse.

“They paid a fine — a fraction of their annual profits — and went on with business as usual,” said Rosenthal, who also supports Healey’s decision not to settle. “It changed nothing.”

Healey’s lawsuit, filed last year, alleges that the Sacklers reaped “billion of dollars” even as the company misled prescribers and patients in an effort to boost prescriptions for their addictive medications. Since 2007, Purdue has sold more than 70 million doses of opioids in Massachusetts, for more than $500 million, the suit claims.

“By their misconduct, the Sacklers have hammered Massachusetts families in every way possible,” the complaint says. “And the stigma they used as a weapon made the crisis worse.”

Legal experts say Healey’s refusal to settle could result in a better deal to help those affected by opioid addiction.

“The opioid crisis has wrecked havoc across the nation, particularly in Massachusetts, and the attorney general is clearly trying to put some real money on the table and make the parties who are responsible for creating the crisis to pay for their actions,” said Martin W. Healy, chief operating officer and legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association.

A number of lawmakers also back Healey’s position, saying the publicly disclosed terms of the settlement don’t go far enough.

“I’ve seen firsthand the tragedies that families have gone through because of the business decisions of these companies,” said Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, a former city police chief. “She doesn’t have to settle just because other states are doing so. She’s a tough prosecutor, and I trust her judgment on it.”

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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