Health Care

Sackler family points fingers at Purdue Pharma during House hearing on opioids

Members of Purdue Pharma’s Sackler family testified before the House Oversight Committee Thursday, marking one of the first times in years the family had been publicly questioned under oath on the company’s role in the deadly opioid epidemic. 

The hearing comes as members of the Sackler family, who deny any personal wrongdoing in the opioid crisis, attempt to settle thousands of civil claims filed against them and Purdue Pharma by states and cities claiming they fueled and epidemic killing more than 400,000 people. 

At the center of lawsuits against Purdue Pharma and members of the Sackler family is the argument they marketed Oxycontin to doctors and others as less addictive than other painkillers.

But the Sacklers largely dodged questions about Purdue’s marketing tactics, claiming they were unaware and pointed the finger at the company instead.

“I’m angry that some people working at Purdue broke the law,” Kathe Sackler, a former Purdue board member told lawmakers when asked if she would apologize for her role in the crisis. 

“There’s nothing that I can find that I would have done differently based on what I believe and understood then.”

Lawmakers were unforgiving in their questioning Thursday, accusing David and Kathe Sackler of knowing more than they let on and for trying to evade accountability for their roles in the opioid crisis. David served on the Purdue board of directors from 2012 to 2018 and Kathe served from 1990 to 2018. 

Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty in November to fraud and kickback conspiracies in an $8 billion settlement with the Department of Justice. Members of the Sackler family agreed to pay $225 million — an estimated 2 percent of the family’s net worth — to resolve civil claims but denied wrongdoing.

The hearing did not produce much new information about the Sackler’s role in the crisis and largely served as a public flogging of the family.

“Watching you testify makes my blood boil,” Rep. James Cooper (D-Tenn.) said to David Sackler. “I’m not sure that I’m aware of any family in America that’s more evil.” 

The scorn was bipartisan, with Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) noting that “we don’t agree on a lot in this committee.”

“But I think our opinion of Purdue Pharma, and the actions of your family, I think we all agree are sickening. And it’s not just the cost to the families, it’s the cost to society.”

Advocates, lawmakers and attorneys representing the thousands of states and cities suing Purdue and the Sacklers have argued the family isn’t facing enough accountability for their role in the crisis, given the considerable wealth Oxycontin generated for them. 

They argue Purdue and its board misled doctors about how addictive Oxycontin is, pushed to increase sales of the drug, and flooded the market with it,  leading doctors to prescribe it for unsafe or medically unnecessary uses. 

Under a proposed $10 billion settlement of those lawsuits, Purdue declared bankruptcy and likely will be reorganized into a public benefit corporation, where profits from future opioid sales would fund addiction programs. The Sacklers would give up control of the company, pay $3 billion of their personal wealth, and could attempt to use the bankruptcy proceedings to shield themselves from future lawsuits.

The Sacklers used Tuesday’s hearing to argue they are now working to end the opioid crisis, noting the proposed settlement.

“What you’ve heard from the press about the Sacklers is almost certainly wrong and distorted. We also fully acknowledged that there is an opioid crisis that just ruined too many lives that Oxycontin addiction and abuse played a role in,” David Sackler said. 

But several states, led by Massachusetts, oppose the settlement, arguing it doesn’t hold the Sacklers accountable to the degree necessary. 

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who filed the first state lawsuit against individual members of the Sackler family, has criticized the federal settlement as not doing enough to hold the family accountable.

“The Sacklers want Purdue to be preserved as a public trust. They want state and local governments to be in the business of owning an OxyContin company. I’m offended by that. Families who lost a loved one are offended by that. Purdue should be shut down, not propped up,” she tweeted during the hearing.

In criticizing the DOJ settlement, Healey noted in a written statement to the committee that Purdue continued selling Oxycontin after it pleaded guilty in 2007 to a felony charge of “misbranding” and misrepresenting the risk of addiction. 

The company was allowed to continue selling the drug which, by that point, had already helped spurn a crisis.

“Purdue has admitted that it continued to commit crimes for another decade after that 2007 conviction, and what did the Justice Department do? It asked Purdue and the Sacklers to pay another fine… No individual was charged, or put on trial, or sent to prison. That is not good enough.” 

Lawmakers had specific questions about what happened to the $10 billion the Sacklers transferred out of Purdue Pharma over a ten year period, arguing the funding should be paid to resolve lawsuits against them and aid victims of the crisis. The lawsuits against the family argue the money was moved to safeguard it during legal proceedings. 

“Why should the company not transfer back the $10.4 billion dollars to be used to pay the creditors in this case including the victims of opioid abuse?” asked Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) 

David Sackler said about half of that amount went to taxes, but the family still has the remainder in its possession. 

 “Those profits in my opinion should be clawed back. You and your family should compensate the American public for the harms you caused and you should be held fully accountable for your actions,” said Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.)

Tags Carolyn Maloney James Comer

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