Sackler Family Side-Step Personal Responsibility for Opioid Crisis 

Purdue Pharma

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In their first appearance in years, the notorious Sackler family, who previously headed OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, apologized to victims of the opioid crisis but stopped short of admitting personal responsibility during a nearly four-hour grilling from the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee.  Instead, they deflected blame to “management”.

During the virtual hearing, which happened after the committee’s chairwoman, Rep.Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), threatened the Sacklers with subpoenas, David Sackler and his cousin, Dr. Kathe Sackler, faced questions regarding how much they knew about the addictive nature of opioids while encouraging sales of the blockbuster drug, as well as about what their financial gains were.

While admitting to the addictive properties of opioids, David Sackler, a descendent of one of two of three brothers who bought the company - then called Purdue Frederick -  in 1952, also appeared to extol the virtues of OxyContin.

“I want to express my family’s deep sadness about the opioid crisis. OxyContin is a medicine that Purdue intended to help people, and it has helped and continues to help millions of Americans,” said Sackler, who served on Purdue’s board from 2012 to 2018.

“I have tried to figure out if there’s anything I could have done differently knowing what I knew then, not what I know now. There is nothing I can find that I would have differently,” said Kathe Sackler.

To which Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) responded in his questioning: “You want to ask what you could have differently? Look at your own damn balance sheet.”

More than 3000 cities, towns, and other jurisdictions are suing drug companies, and leveling part of the blame against the Sacklers for their part in the opioid epidemic that has claimed the lives of more than 450 000 Americans over the past two decades. In federal court, these communities claim to have been flooded with painkillers.

Thursday’s hearing came three weeks after Purdue plead guilty to three criminal charges as part of a settlement with the Department of Justice (DOJ) where it agreed to pay more than $8 billion in forfeitures and penalties.  The deal, in which the Sackler family has agreed to pay $225 million to the government, leaves open the possibility that members could be criminally prosecuted.

The Sacklers, along with Purdue, have proposed resolving the lawsuits by transforming the company into a public benefit corporation, with the proceeds going to help address the opioid epidemic.

This strategy is opposed by 25 attorneys general, including Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D), who claim that this will only serve to shield the Sackler family.

“What we do now matters,” Healey wrote to the House committee prior to Thursday’s testimony. “If we let powerful people cover up the facts, avoid accountability, or create a government-sponsored OxyContin business — that’s not justice. This time, we have to get it right.”

The attorneys general also feel that it would be ethically wrong to preserve the company as a public trust, stating: “A business that killed thousands of Americans should not be associated with government.”

Prior to the tense and often biting nearly testimony, pictures of victims who lost their lives to the opioid epidemic flashed across the screen, and many protested outside. 

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 10.3 million people misused prescription opioids in 2018, while 2 million were characterized as having an opioid use disorder. 

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