OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty in November to three criminal charges, in a virtual hearing with a federal judge in Newark, N.J., as part of a criminal and civil settlement between Purdue and the Justice Department. Purdue made numerous admissions during the hearing, including that it hindered efforts by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to fight the addiction crisis.
The company has acknowledged that:
Purdue had told the DEA that it had a program to prevent diversion of prescription drugs to the black market, when it had not effectively maintained such a program.
It gave the DEA misleading information to encourage the company’s manufacturing quotas.
It has paid doctors through a speakers program to encourage them to write more painkiller prescriptions.
Purdue paid an electronic medical records company to send patient data to doctors to encourage them to prescribe opioids.
The settlement includes $8.3 billion in penalties and forfeitures. The company will pay a smaller amount of $225 million directly to the federal government as long as it executes a settlement pending in federal bankruptcy court with numerous entities. State and local governments have also sued the company for its role in the opioid epidemic.
As part of the bankruptcy settlement, Purdue has proposed that the company will become a public benefit corporation, using its proceeds to fight the opioid crisis. Members of the Sackler family, who own Purdue Pharma, have also agreed to pay $225 million to the federal government to settle civil claims.
Advocates, state attorneys general, and family members of individuals affected by opioids are dissatisfied with the company’s admission. Opponents to the federal settlement had hoped that company employees and members of the Sackler family would face individual penalties, including prison.
According to the CDC, 128 people a day die in the United States after overdosing on opioids. Prescription opioid misuse in the United States is estimated to have an economic burden of $78.5 billion a year, which includes not only healthcare costs, but also law enforcement, lost productivity, and addiction treatment.
The company has made its admissions at a time of renewed concern about opioid misuse and overdoses. Data from the CDC show that opioid deaths dropped 4.6 percent during a 12-month period in 2017 and 2018. (This did not include opioid deaths related to illegally made fentanyl, which increased 11.1 percent during that period.) In March 2020, CDC reported that prescription opioid-involved overdose death rates decreased by 13.5 percent.
During the COVID-19 public health emergency, however, addiction and mental illness rates have increased. U.S. lawmakers and healthcare providers have reported increases in overdoses and deaths associated with opioids and other drugs. In some locations, opioid misuse is still declining, but use of illicit drugs, such as fentanyl and heroin, have increased.
Research has found an increased rate of overdoses in areas where automotive assembly plants have closed. The ongoing financial difficulties during the pandemic could lead to further overdoses.
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