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Bankruptcy Judge Is Set To Rule On Purdue Pharma's Opioid Settlement Plan

NOEL KING, HOST:

A big ruling coming today in the bankruptcy of Purdue Pharma, which makes the opioid OxyContin. At stake is whether a federal judge will grant immunity from future lawsuits to the company's owners, members of the Sackler family.

NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann has been following this story for a long time. Good morning, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So the Sacklers have essentially demanded a clean legal slate in the opioid crisis, and this is very controversial.

MANN: Yeah. Members of the Sackler family, of course, earned billions of dollars from the sale of OxyContin. And internal emails and memos from the company made public in court show some family members kept pushing opioid sales aggressively long after the opioid crisis exploded across the country. A lot of companies sold opioids, but OxyContin became one of the most widely abused. And under this deal that we expect to be finalized later this morning by Judge Robert Drain, the Sacklers will walk away from their alleged role in the crisis. All the thousands of opioid lawsuits filed against them would be blocked permanently. The Sacklers will admit no wrongdoing and remain one of the richest families in the world.

KING: What are they giving up in return?

MANN: The Sacklers will pay roughly $4.3 billion over the next 10 years. They'll also give up ownership of their bankrupt company. It's important to say the Sacklers have long maintained they did nothing wrong, nothing illegal or unethical. Though their company has pleaded guilty twice to federal criminal charges for opioid marketing schemes, members of the family have never been charged.

KING: OxyContin hurt a lot of people. What are victims' rights groups saying as we await this ruling?

MANN: Yeah, there's fury, Noel, and there's heartbreak that the Sacklers will get to move on with their lives while the country is expected to keep grappling with this opioid epidemic for decades. I spoke with Nan Goldin about this. She's an artist who became addicted to OxyContin, and she thinks it's wrong for this bankruptcy court to preempt those lawsuits against the Sacklers.

NAN GOLDIN: I think the liability release is one of the most egregious parts of this settlement. I've never seen any such, like, abuse of justice. It's shocking. It's really shocking.

MANN: So this is personal for a lot of people and painful. Folks think the Sacklers should be held more accountable.

KING: Now, interestingly enough, you've reported that the Justice Department also opposes this deal. Is Purdue Pharma worried at all that the DOJ could appeal this plan if it does get approved?

MANN: They're really worried. We reported yesterday that Purdue Pharma's attorneys launched a behind-the-scenes effort to pressure DOJ not to appeal. The company's attorneys actually wrote a letter that purported to be from people harmed by Purdue Pharma and OxyContin. They distributed that letter to supporters of this deal, urging them to sign some version of it and send it to the DOJ. Those who support this plan argue that an appeal from the federal government could delay implementation of the plan and cause it to unravel. On the other side, the DOJ has argued repeatedly that these liability releases are unlawful for the Sacklers. And they filed a new brief just last night saying that this plan should not be confirmed.

KING: Is there any possibility that this deal, as controversial as it is, could actually help anyone if it's implemented?

MANN: Well, that's why this is so complicated. A bunch of state and local governments, Noel, they say, yes, this could really help. Up to $5 billion would be channeled into programs designed to help people with addiction. And so that's what Judge Drain will be deciding. Is this a good plan? Should it go forward?

KING: NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann. Thank you, Brian.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.