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Would a $10 billion Purdue settlement reach towns affected by the opioid crisis?

Kai Ryssdal and Caitlin Esch Aug 28, 2019
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A homemade sign says "Think drugs gets you high give God a try," on a front lawn in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. The town in Wise County has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic.
Julia Rendleman/Marketplace

Update (Sept.16, 2019): Purdue Pharma, the company that made billions selling the prescription painkiller OxyContin, filed for bankruptcy in White Plains, New York, Sunday, days after reaching a tentative settlement with many of the state and local governments suing it over the toll of opioids.

Update (Sept. 11, 2019): Various news outlets are reporting that Purdue Pharma, state attorneys general and lawyers representing some 2,000 plaintiffs have tentatively agreed to the settlement described below, valued at up to $12 billion, with the Sackler family paying at least $3 billion over seven years. The original story appears below.

Let’s do the numbers: The makers of OxyContin offered up between $10 billion and $12 billion to settle some 2,000 lawsuits related to the opioid crisis, according to a report Wednesday morning from NBC News.

Most of those suits allege Purdue Pharma’s sales and marketing tactics around its powerful opioids helped start the worst drug crisis America has ever seen while enriching its owners, the Sackler family. Overdoses involving opioids have killed more than 400,000 Americans between 1999 and 2017.

The settlement, reportedly proposed during a meeting between Purdue and at least 10 state attorneys general and other plaintiffs’ lawyers, would require the company to declare bankruptcy, restructure as a “public benefit trust” and provide billions in drugs to local governments.

Our podcast “The Uncertain Hour” dug into the launch of OxyContin, and the way its claims of being less addictive were regulated, back in 2017. Producer Caitlin Esch spent a lot of time in Wise County, Virginia, considered ground zero for the crisis. We talked with her about what that money can — and can’t — do for people on the ground. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: So you have been out there in these towns and the cities where these drugs have had the most impact. And while $10 billion sounds like a lot of money, I wonder how far it goes when they’re out there, because these places are having to spend on police forces, on jails, on rehab. What’s it like out there?

Caitlin Esch: Yeah, the costs on the ground are real. We spent a lot of time in Wise County, which is in the southwest corner of Virginia. And a lot of cities and counties in that area are also suing Purdue Pharma and other drug companies. For example, the regional jail population has more than doubled in the 14 years since it was built. Wise County spending on incarceration has more than tripled in the past decade. And then, of course, there are costs associated with running the courts and foster care and health care. Not to mention the lives lost to overdose death and incarceration.

Ryssdal: You spent time with a bunch of people out there. I want to talk about two of them. One of them was a sheriff or a cop, right?

Esch: Yeah, an undercover narcotics officer. We followed him over the course of about two years. He had been in the lumber business. But yeah, he said that he had trouble finding enough workers. So he became an undercover cop, decided to fight the forces that he believed were contributing to bringing down his business.

Ryssdal: And he had trouble finding workers, in part because of the opiate crisis.

Esch: He said he had trouble finding workers that were sober and would show up to work on time, pass a drug test.

Ryssdal: Speaking of that kind of person, the other guy you spent a lot of time with, I forget his name, he’s the guy who went to jail. Remind me.

Esch: Joey Ballard. We followed him over a couple of years as he struggled with substance use disorder. He had started on pain pills in the ’90s, when he was in high school and right after high school, and he was sober when I first met him, but then he relapsed and was in and out of jail, had switched from pain pills to methamphetamine, which is what he was on most recently.

Ryssdal: There was a scene in one of the episodes of that season where you were on the phone with him and he was in jail, right?

Esch: Right. And actually, he’s still in jail. He is waiting to be moved to an incarcerated kind of boot-camp-treatment-style program, but he’s still in the same regional jail.

Ryssdal: So spitball this for me, right? And get me back to where we started — $10 [billion], $12 billion, a lot of money. Who knows how much is coming from other companies like Johnson & Johnson and Walmart and CVS and all these other places? Is that going to do it?

Esch: Well, I mean, a big bone of contention is how that money will be divvied up and when it will actually get to these communities. I think it sounds like a lot of money. But it may not go as far as, you know, some of these communities are hoping.

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