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As Purdue Pharma Bankruptcy Nears Approval, Family Members Write About The Human Toll

Signage for Purdue Pharma headquarters stands in downtown Stamford, April 2, 2019 in Stamford, Connecticut. Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, and its owners, the Sackler family, are facing hundreds of lawsuits across the country for the company's alleged role in the opioid epidemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans over the past 20 years.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
Signage for Purdue Pharma headquarters stands in downtown Stamford, April 2, 2019 in Stamford, Connecticut. Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, and its owners, the Sackler family, are facing hundreds of lawsuits across the country for the company's alleged role in the opioid epidemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans over the past 20 years.

Bankruptcy proceedings against Purdue Pharma, the maker of Oxycontin, have often been opaque and bureaucratic, the outcome of the multi-billion dollar settlement shaped by backroom deal-making.

But woven into the court record are dozens of personal letters written by people who say their families were ravaged by addiction that began with the company's powerful pain pills.

"Aloha, the honorable Judge Drain," begins one letter written by Keola Kekuewa, a resident of Honolulu, in December of last year. He went on to describe the "horrors of opioid addiction."

In an interview with NPR, Kekuewa said he wanted to tell the court about his experience losing more than 20 years to substance use after Oxycontin pills flooded his community.

"I had an awesome job, I was in love. It was beautiful and I was a beautiful person," he said. "It ended up into needles and accidental overdoses, purposeful suicide attempts. It opened up this dark horrible world that I didn't know existed."

In his letter, Kekuewa, asked for more than $2 million in compensation from Purdue Pharma. Under the bankruptcy plan now being finalized he's more likely to receive around $3,500.

These letters, some handwritten, many addressed directly to federal bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain, have little bearing on the outcome of the process.

But by including them in the public record, Drain allowed a rare window into the human toll of the prescription opioid crisis.

The bankruptcy may be measured in dollars, but the epidemic is measured in lives

"I lost count over the last 15 years on how many funerals I have attended," wrote Joanne Peterson, an opioid activist in Massachusetts. "Then I had to plan one myself for my niece when we buried her."

Peterson's letter, written in October 2018, includes a common complaint from those with personal injury claims against Purdue Pharma: She believes the company's owners, members of the Sackler family, aren't being held fully accountable for their role in the opioid crisis.

"Millions of families are longing for justice and we bury people as they live lavish lifestyle," she wrote.

The controversial plan, widely expected to be approved by Drain after a final confirmation hearing scheduled for Thursday, would give sweeping immunity from opioid lawsuits to members of the Sackler family and to their remaining empire.

Kekuewa, like others interviewed by NPR, said he supports some elements of the bankruptcy plan.

But he echoed the concern it doesn't do enough to punish the Sacklers.

"They lied and said it's not addicting," he said.

The Sackler family says they did nothing wrong

The Sacklers have long maintained they did nothing wrong, insisting in public statements and in court filings that they acted properly while holding positions of leadership in Purdue Pharma.

"There's nothing I can find that I would have done differently," said Dr. Kathe Sackler who served on Purdue's board for nearly 20 years, during testimony before a House panel last December.

David Sackler, who also served on the board for six years, also denied any personal wrongdoing. "The family and the board acted legally and ethically," he testified.

But many researchers and public health experts say the introduction of Oxycontin in the late 1990s and aggressive marketing by Purdue Pharma helped spur the nation's deadly opioid crisis.

More than 500,000 Americans have died from fatal drug overdoses according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Purdue Pharma has admitted misleading doctors and the public about the risks of Oxycontin addiction, pleading guilty to federal crimes in 2007 and again in 2020.

But the Sacklers have never been charged. Under terms of this bankruptcy, they would admit no wrongdoing and would win sweeping immunity from future opioid lawsuits.

In exchange, members of the family would give up ownership of their bankrupt company. They'd also pay roughly $4.3 billion dollars in installments spread over the next decade.

"We only have the laws that we have"

"They're going to get away with all this again and they started this mess," said Leona Nuss, of Virginia. Her son Randall overdosed on Oxycontin in 2003.

"We got a phone call. When I heard the word Oxycontin I just could not believe it," she recalled. "We were at a shopping center I was outside the shopping center screaming my head off."

Nuss wrote two letters to the bankruptcy court but told NPR she refused to submit a formal claim for damages.

"You know, how could I put a price on my son's life? I just couldn't do it. We just want transparency," she said. "We want to see them punished. To see them get away with this and to watch them hold up their heads so high, like no remorse, no nothing."

Again members of the Sackler family have said repeatedly they did nothing wrong.

In December 2020, Judge Drain spoke during a hearing about concerns expressed in one victim letter that the Sacklers weren't being held accountable.

He noted attorneys working on the case had already spent tens of thousands of hours analyzing potential claims against the Sacklers.

"Just like you cannot put a price ultimately on a human life, there is a legal analysis that needs to be done that is separate from whatever one might think morality might require," Drain said.

He went on to suggest recovering more assets from their Sacklers and their private holdings would be difficult.

"We only have the laws that we have, in other words, and that is what the mediation is addressing now and I hope will result in an agreement that is acceptable to, as a legal matter, the vast majority of people involved in this case," Drain said on Dec. 20, 2020.

As part of the bankruptcy process, people with personal injuries claims against Purdue Pharma were eligible to vote on the settlement plan.

According to court records, roughly half of the 130,000 people who filed claims cast ballots. Of those who voted, 58,196 signaled support for the plan.

Many legal experts interviewed by NPR also believe this bankruptcy deal could do real good. Under the plan, billions of dollars would go to fund drug rehab and other health programs designed to reduce addiction and overdose deaths.

But critics say bankruptcy court was never the proper venue for this case, especially given the release from liability for the Sacklers.

"This is not the justice we were looking for," said Alexis Pleus an opioid activist in Upstate New York.

She wrote a letter to Judge Drain in June about her son Jeff, who died from an opioid overdose seven years ago.

"[The settlement] does not address the victims, it never did address the victims and we just want that to be our final record," Pleus told NPR.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.