A federal judge's ruling this week could shield the Sackler family from Massachusetts' lawsuit over the family's role in the opioid epidemic, and Attorney General Maura Healey is not happy about it.
Healey was among the first state attorneys general to file lawsuitsagainst both Purdue Pharma and members of the Sackler family - who own the company - over aggressive sales practices for their opioid painkiller Oxycontin.
Purdue has filed for bankruptcy protection, and the company has proposed a settlement plan to resolve all claims against the company as well as shield it from other lawsuits. On Wednesday, the federal judge overseeing the case allowed that deal to move forward, and ruled the same protections should be granted to the Sackler's individually.
"Unfortunately, we've seen the Sacklers essentially try to hijack and abuse the bankruptcy process to block our law enforcement efforts, and it really should not be allowed," Healey told GBH News on Thursday. "The Sacklers, as with Purdue, need to be held accountable for the wrong they did to the families who suffered such devastation in the opioid crisis."
While the company has declared bankruptcy, the Sackler family is among the richest in the country, Healey said, and shouldn't get protection from lawsuits.
"They're not saying they're bankrupt," Healey said of the Sacklers. "They can't say that, because they have billions and billions of dollars. What they're saying is that the bankruptcy court should basically let them pay the states and cities some money and then be done with this. And we say no, because the money that they're offering is not enough. It's not good enough. And it is an insult to the families who suffered so much as a result of their conduct."
The Sackler family denies any wrongdoing and says members of the family on the company's board acted "ethically and lawfully." They set up a website to defend the company and family from what they say are "unsubstantiated allegations."
Purdue's plan to settle all the lawsuits against the company involves a payment of more than 4 billion dollars, which would be split among the many plaintiffs. Healey's office estimates Massachusetts would receive between four and six million dollars a year over the next several years.
Healey said the state will continue to oppose the settlement in bankruptcy court and any extension of protections to the Sackler family. The proposed settlement will be put to a vote by hundreds of thousands of claimants by a deadline of July 14.
"And we'll vote no, because this just isn't good enough, it's not good enough for the families and it does not meet the measure of justice that is required in this case or of accountability," said Healey.
U.S. Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Mark DeSaulnier, D-CA, have filed federal legislation known as the SACKLER Act, that would prevent people who haven't filed for bankruptcy from being released from liability through bankruptcy proceedings. Healey is set to testify virtually in favor of that legislation next Tuesday before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
One provision in Purdue's proposed settlement that Healey called "perverse and inappropriate" would transform the pharmaceutical company into a so-called "public benefit company" with future profits being used by states to fund efforts to address the opioid crisis.
"We want no part of that," Healey said.
That part of the plan would present an inherent conflict of interest for states, said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, medical director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University.
"States should not be in the business of profiting off of future sales of opioids in order to address the crisis," said Kolodny, who previously served as an expert witness in the state of Oklahoma's case against Purdue. "States should be doing everything they can to promote more cautious prescribing of opioids so that less people become addicted, and so the epidemic ultimately comes to an end."
Kolodny said he doesn't believe the states would get much profit from the sale of Oxycontin, anyway.
"One of the reasons that Perdue was going into bankruptcy wasn't simply all of the lawsuits against Perdue, but sales of OxyContin have been decreasing because there's generic competition. There is now generic OxyContin. And so there's really no reason to believe that there's much value in Purdue's products."
The Sackler family's move to be shielded from lawsuits has far-reaching implications, Kolodny said.
"There are important concerns here, not just for the opioid crisis, but for other public health problems that are caused by corporate greed," he said. "If individuals that make decisions that lead to a massive loss of life are able to walk away billionaires, then it sets a very bad precedent."