Lawmakers Lay Blame for Opioid Epidemic on Purdue Pharma
WASHINGTON — Members of Congress lashed into the Sackler family Thursday for its pharmaceutical company’s role in promoting a painkiller blamed for killing about 230,000 Americans.
Lawmakers on the House Oversight and Reform Committee said the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma L.P. enriched themselves despite knowing about the risks and addictiveness of their opioid OxyContin.
“Watching you testify makes my blood boil,” Rep. James Cooper, D-Tenn., told David Sackler, a former Purdue Pharma board member.
The lawmakers accused Purdue Pharma of concealing the dangers of OxyContin while earning as much as $30 billion from the drug since sales started in 1996.
Common side effects of opioids include euphoria but also addiction, hallucinations and respiratory depression, sometimes leading to death.
The Centers for Disease Control reports opioids have killed about 450,000 Americans. An estimated 230,000 died from complications from prescriptions of OxyContin, the CDC says.
Purdue Pharma is a privately-held pharmaceutical company founded and principally owned by members of the Sackler family, one of the 15 wealthiest families in the United States. The family members left the board of directors in 2018.
In 2007, the company paid $634 million as one of the largest fines ever levied against a pharmaceutical firm for mislabeling a product. Three of its executives were found guilty of criminal charges.
The company shifted its focus to medicines designed to prevent addiction but continued to market and sell opioids as late as 2019.
Purdue Pharma filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on September 15, 2019. On October 21, 2020, the Stamford, Conn.-based company reached a settlement agreement with the Justice Department worth $8.3 billion.
As part of the agreement, company officials admitted Purdue Pharma “knowingly and intentionally conspired and agreed with others to aid and abet” doctors dispensing medication “without a legitimate medical purpose.”
Members of the Sackler family will pay an additional $225 million out of their personal fortunes. Purdue Pharma is dissolving as a company.
Two Sackler family members who sat on the board of directors of Purdue Pharma testified they had no intention of hurting anyone when they developed the drug designed to help manage sometimes disabling pain. They also said they acted within Food and Drug Administration regulations.
OxyContin “has helped and it continues to help millions of Americans,” David Sackler said.
He apologized for the harm the drug has caused but added, “I believe I conducted myself properly and ethically” with his company and family financial dealings.
Kathe Sackler, a former Purdue Pharma vice president, called the addictions and deaths from OxyContin “extremely distressing.”
She added that the company followed standard procedures for drug development, approval and sales.
“There’s nothing I could find that I would do differently,” Kathe Sackler said.
The hearing started with a three-minute film that showed relatives or victims of overdoses telling about their personal tragedies from OxyContin.
One man told about his 18-year-old daughter taking a prescription dose of the drug before it induced respiratory failure.
“She only took one pill,” he said. “She went to sleep on the couch and she never woke up.”
A professional woman who worked in the museum industry talked about her unintended overdose from an OxyContin prescription in 2017 followed by months in a rehab clinic.
“My addiction destroyed my relationships with my friends and family and almost destroyed my career of 50 years,” she said.
Several lawmakers said or implied the Justice Department should consider additional criminal charges against the Sacklers.
They said the Sackler family withdrew more than $10 billion from the company’s assets, particularly as lawsuits filed by states and individuals made it clear Purdue Pharma was about to suffer a big financial penalty.
“They wanted to get out as much money as possible,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who chairs the Oversight and Reform Committee.
Despite denials from David Sackler, Maloney said, “I think you did know that more judgments and settlements were coming.”
Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., who co-chairs the committee, told the Sacklers, “We don’t agree on a lot on this committee in a bipartisan way. But I think our opinion of Purdue Pharma and the actions of your family, we all agree are sickening.”