Connecticut must now take its chances in bankruptcy court as it continues to pursue its lawsuit against drug maker Purdue Pharma. The Stamford-based maker of Oxycontin officially announced its long-rumored bankruptcy filing Sunday night, confirming a settlement deal with about half of the states that had taken legal action over the effects of the opioid overdose epidemic. Connecticut was not among the states participating in that settlement.
The state's attorney general, William Tong, issued a defiant statement Monday in light of the bankruptcy filing, calling it an expected move.
"Whether through bankruptcy or Connecticut courts, we will hold Purdue and the Sacklers accountable for the pain and suffering and death they have caused here and across the country," Tong said.
The Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma, was accused late last week by the New York attorney general of transferring around a billion dollars from the company to Swiss bank accounts, in an attempt to shield the money from legal claims.
"This is yet another cynical maneuver to try to shirk responsibility, but it is not without risks for them," Tong said of the bankruptcy filing. "Purdue and the Sacklers cannot cry poverty while stashing billions overseas. We will move aggressively in bankruptcy to disclose their hidden fortune and ensure their full wealth is now on the table."
The settlement ends litigation with the participants for a payout of $10-$12 billion dollars. The Sackler family would personally contribute $3 billion to that total, probably from the sale of another company that they own. Their other personal assets are likely to remain untouched. Purdue itself would be dissolved as a company and converted into a trust. It would distribute overdose recovery drugs free of charge to affected communities.
"This settlement framework avoids wasting hundreds of millions of dollars and years on protracted litigation, and instead will provide billions of dollars and critical resources to communities across the country trying to cope with the opioid crisis," said Steve Miller, chairman of Purdue's board of directors, in a statement issued to NPR. "We will continue to work with state attorneys general and other plaintiff representatives to finalize and implement this agreement as quickly as possible," he added.
Lenny Bernstein, Health and Medicine reporter for the Washington Post who covers the opioid epidemic, told Connecticut Public Radio's Where We Live Connecticut is taking a risk.
"The bankruptcy judge under normal circumstances has the right to halt all the litigation against Purdue," he said. "A lot will depend on how the bankruptcy judge looks at this."
Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts and other states on the outside of the settlement are betting they can persuade the judge to let them pursue the Sacklers' personal assets, even if Purdue Pharma itself is dissolved.
"There's a real divide among the attorneys general," Bernstein said. "Are the Sacklers contributing enough? Over recent years we know that the Sacklers have taken money out of the company and put it in their personal accounts. And what people like Tong are saying is, $3 billion is not enough from their personal accounts. Now, those who are going along are saying -- it's better for us to be in bankruptcy court with them trying to make adjustments, trying to get more from them, than to be on the outside, yelling about the deal."
Alexis Pleus was one of the people who staged a protest outside Purdue Pharma’s headquarters in Stamford last week. She’s the executive director of Truth Pharm, an organization working with families with loved ones suffering from addiction. Pleus lost her son to an overdose five years ago.
Pleus said state attorneys general should not settle with Purdue Pharma. For her, two issues are at stake. She agrees with Tong that the settlement does not tap far enough into the personal wealth of the Sacklers; she’s also worried about how settlement money would be spent by the states.
“There’s no promise that it would provide relief to families who have suffered loss. There’s no money being dedicated to help those who are still struggling,” said Pleus. “It seems to me that it’s not transparent at all where those funds would be going.”
She wants to see it fund harm reduction for people who are addicted. She also wants the families affected by the opioid crisis to get some of the money.
“Even [I] paid $5,000 to bury my son. But, that doesn’t even count what I’ve lost in income, what I’ve lost in trying to get him care while he was still alive,” Pleus said. “There’s hundreds of thousands of families who have suffered in that way.”
Pleus founded Truth Pharm shortly after her son Jeff died of a heroin overdose in 2014. He had wrestled and played football in high school, and began taking Oxycontin prescribed to him for his recovery from a knee injury. Back then, she didn’t know anything about the effects of that opioid on patients.
“I had no idea that Oxycontin was addictive or that I should worry about,” Pleus said. “Nobody told us about that at all.”
She also had no idea that it could lead to a heroin addiction. She’d thought her son was doing well after he completed high school and college and became a chef. She found out about the escalation of his addiction about eight years after he was first prescribed Oxycontin.
“What I learned after losing Jeff is that to me, my story is very personal and it feels unique, but the reality is that it’s not unique at all,” Pleus said.
Overdose deaths in Connecticut attributed to opioids rose from a total of 298 in 2012, to 948 last year. The Medical Examiner’ office estimates they are on track to top a thousand deaths by the end of this year.
Connecticut’s Department of Public Health reports that Connecticut’s rate for emergency department visits attributed to opioid overdoses appeared to stabilize in the latter half of 2018, after several years of increases. But it still remained 1.7 times higher than the national average.
This story has been updated.