Some Closure Reached in Opioids Crisis with Billions Dollars Settlements, But Epidemic Is Far From Over

Accountability finally came, and long overdue for the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma makers of the painkiller OxyContin which played a central role in the opioid epidemic.

Close to 150,000 people involved in an opioids civil lawsuit — for some of them having two decades of suffering, dependency, drug-abuse treatment, financial ruin and death – recently received some closure as a judge overseeing Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy approved a $6 billion opioid settlement.

The settlement over time could be worth more than $10 billion and will protect the family from further civil lawsuits, but does not shield members of the family from criminal charges.

Some $750 million will be divided among some 150,000 people who have struggled with addiction or who lost loved ones from OxyContin. The rest of the money will be going toward fighting addiction.

While the settlement serves as accountability for the devastating harm caused by OxyContin, it is justice that will not bring back those loved ones families who have loss to death and the grief they must endure over a lifetime.

Hawaii victims from OxyContin logged in to the virtual court hearing where over two dozen victims had a first-time opportunity to address three members of the Sackler family in court.

A victim who gave birth to a baby born addicted to opioids addressed the Sacklers: “the screaming will haunt you for the rest of your life — and what it’s been like to raise him.”  At 11, the child still uses a sippy cup and diapers, his mother said.

OxyContin, a pioneering extended-release prescription painkiller, hit the market in 1996. It was prescribed for a wide-range of pain conditions that was previously thought to be medically safe and appropriate.

There have been nearly 500,000 U.S. opioid overdose deaths over two decades, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hawaii to receive settlement
In another earlier $26 billion settlement with drugmaker Johnson & Johnson and distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, and McKesson, Hawaii will receive about $73 million as its share of the landmark settlement, according to the state attorney general General Holly T. Shikada.

Funds for that settlement will begin to be released to a national administrator starting on April 2, 2022. Most of the $73 million allocated for Hawaii will go to support treatment, recovery, and harm reduction programs, and other strategies to address the opioid epidemic.

It hasn’t been announced if Hawaii will get funds from the Purdue settlement, but at the time of the earlier $25 billion settlement, Atty. Gen. Shikada said “these settlements do not complete our fight against those who created and fostered the nationwide opioid problem.”

The $25 billion settlement is the second-largest multi-state agreement in U.S. history, second only to the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement.

In a 2018 study, Hawaii had among the lowest rates in the U.S. prescribing opioids, Hawaii providers wrote 33.4 opioid prescriptions for every 100 persons, compared to the average U.S. rate of 51.4 prescriptions.

Purdue filed for bankruptcy in 2019 after facing thousands of lawsuits, but the Sackler family has not admitted to any legal wrongdoing. Purdue pleaded guilty to misbranding and fraud charges related to its OxyContin marketing in 2007 and 2020.

The Sackler family released a statement saying they had acted lawfully but “regret” that OxyContin “unexpectedly became part of an opioid crisis that has brought grief and loss to far too many families and communities.”

Purdue claimed that far fewer than 1% of people prescribed opioids developed addictions, but studies have not been furnished to back up those claims.

Illegal trade
The legal victories do not cover millions of others who became addicted to opioids in the illegal trade. Many who’ve obtained opioids originally by prescription for a short period of time but were taken off the regiment have resorted to illegal channels to maintain their addiction.

And today, fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid originally developed as a pharmaceutical pain management treatment of cancer patients, is now one of the most popular illegal drugs available on the streets that is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths.

University of Hawaii former star quarterback Colt Brennan obtained fentanyl illegally and died from an accidental overdose.

Crisis far from over
The recent court settlements will go a long way to assist patients led to addiction.

The opioids crisis will go down as one of the most harmful, irresponsible, abusive chapters in modern medicine and treatment. But unfortunately, the opioids crisis via illegal trade is far from over.

The medical community must remember the root causes of this crisis and ensure that the steps that led to it are not repeated. A few of the root causes to learn from: misleading ads not properly warning of addictive qualities of pain killers, overprescribing of opioids, lack of adequate education among doctors on the harmful effects of pain killers, lack of public education on pain killers.

In order to prevent future drug prescription crisis like the opioids epidemic from happening, the billions in settlement won in the courts system may not be enough of a deterrence. Clearly a powerful message has been sent to the pharmaceutical industry regarding civil fines and accountability. But again, is it enough? Perhaps criminal prosecution must follow.

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