There is growing anger among families bereaved by the US opioid epidemic at pharmaceutical companies “buying their way out of accountability” with multibillion-dollar settlements that specifically exclude any admission of wrongdoing.
The opioid maker Johnson & Johnson and the country’s three largest drug distributors on Wednesday agreed to pay $26bn to settle a raft of lawsuits accusing them of acting recklessly and illegally in pushing prescription opioid sales when they knew the painkillers were driving an epidemic of addiction and overdoses.
But after announcing the deal, Johnson & Johnson continued to insist its actions were “appropriate and responsible”. The distributors said they still “strongly dispute the allegations made in these lawsuits” even though they have previously paid significant fines to settle federal claims that they broke the law.
Families bereaved by the opioid epidemic, which has claimed 600,000 lives in two decades, criticised what they regard as a persistent failure to hold to account pharmaceutical executives who manufactured the worst drug crisis in US history by manipulating federal regulators and the medical profession into mass-prescribing narcotics with false claims about their safety and effectiveness.
Emily Walden, chair of the Fed Up! coalition of families harmed by opioids, said the restitution payments are relatively small for some of the country’s largest businesses, particularly when they will be made over up to 18 years.
“This should not be ‘the cost of doing business’, another tax write-off,” Walden said. “They need to pay for what they’ve actually done. And then criminal charges need to come against these executives.”
Walden lost her son TJ to an opioid overdose stemming from a painkiller prescription at 11 years old.
“I don’t think we would let a cartel get away with this. So why is it different for a corporation that knew exactly what they were doing? They knew the harm that was resulting and they continued. They get away with paying a fine? There are people sitting in jail for years for possession of drugs, illegal drugs, but still only possession. And these executives are going to walk?”
Johnson & Johnson is renowned in legal circles for fighting lawsuits but it has been less keen to go to court over opioid cases after an Oklahoma judge in 2019 ordered it to pay the state $465m in restitution in a damning verdict that characterised the company’s executives as little better than drug pushers.
Last month, the company agreed to pay $230m to avoid a jury trial after it was sued by New York’s attorney general.
The three drug distributors – McKesson, AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health – are still on trial in a West Virginia civil case that has made highly embarrassing revelations about their failure to fulfil legal requirements to report and halt suspiciously large-scale orders even as they poured more than 1bn opioid painkillers in to the state between 2006 and 2014.
West Virginia has long had the highest opioid overdose death rate in the US.
In emails, executives at AmerisourceBergen called people who became addicted to opioids “pillbillies”, spoke of parts of the country blighted by the epidemic as “OxyContinville” and responded to new regulations in Kentucky to curb painkiller prescribing by writing: “One of the hillbilly’s [sic] must have learned how to read :-)”.
Joseph Rice, one of the lawyers who led the negotiations on behalf of nearly 3,000 states and municipalities suing the drug industry, said he was not concerned that the firms had continued to avoid admissions of wrongdoing, given that Wednesday’s agreement will bring billions of dollars to communities desperate for money to pay for the consequences of the opioid epidemic.
“I don’t think that it matters,” he said. “There’s responsibly that’s been recognised. There’s massive conduct changes that are being agreed to because they recognised that the way they did business in the past was not right. It wasn’t compliant and it wasn’t safe. That’s what happened and we’re trying to address it the best we can going forward.
“But did we have to have, hand on the Bible, raise your hand and plead guilty? No. That wasn’t necessary.”
Ed Bisch, whose son died from an OxyContin overdose, said it was not enough for corporations to say they have corrected their behaviour.
“Everybody just accepts these companies will pay a couple of billion dollars, but nobody’s admitting they did anything wrong? What kind of world do we live in that people accept that?” he said.
There has also been an onslaught of criticism over the terms of a bankruptcy deal for Purdue Pharma, which has twice been convicted of federal criminal charges over sales of its high-strength painkiller, OxyContin, which is widely held to have kicked off the opioid epidemic.
In a highly unusual move, the bankruptcy plan requires Purdue’s owners, members of the multibillionaire Sackler family, to pay $4.5bn in restitution but then exempts them from further litigation even though they are not themselves seeking bankruptcy.
Earlier this month, the US justice department trustee, William Harrington, who oversees the federal bankruptcy system, accused the Sacklers of misusing the process to avoid liability for “alleged wrongdoing in concocting and perpetuating for profit one of the most severe public health crises ever experienced in the United States”.
Harrington said the bankruptcy deal would mean families devastated by opioids could receive as little as $3,500 in compensation. The Sacklers would retain several billion dollars of the profits from OxyContin.
Separately, the US attorney for the southern district of New York, Audrey Strauss, said the plan violated the constitutional right of claimants to have their cases heard in court.
Senator Elizabeth Warren is sponsoring a bill to block individuals from using the bankruptcy of their businesses to shield themselves from litigation unless they also apply for bankruptcy.