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Members of family that led maker of OxyContin deny responsibility for opioid crisis in congressional hearing

Protesters, including Carol Lorento, center, gather in August 2019 outside a Boston courthouse where a judge was to hear arguments in Massachusetts's lawsuit against Purdue Pharma. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Testifying in public for the first time in decades, members of the family who led OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma apologized Thursday to victims of the national opioid epidemic but did not go as far as accepting personal responsibility for the health crisis.

David Sackler, who served on Purdue’s board from 2012 to 2018, and Kathe Sackler, a board member from 1990 to 2018 and a former vice president, faced heated questioning from the House Oversight Committee about how much they knew about the addictive nature of opioids when they encouraged sales of the company’s blockbuster drug OxyContin and what their financial gains were. Purdue chief executive Craig Landau also testified.

The Sacklers, whose family presided over Purdue, acknowledged that people became addicted to the painkillers marketed by their company but denied doing anything wrong, sidestepping questions about their massive wealth amid mounting lawsuits.

“I want to express my family’s deep sadness about the opioid crisis,” David Sackler said in his opening statement. “OxyContin is a medicine that Purdue intended to help people, and it has helped and continues to help millions of Americans.”

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More than 3,000 cities, towns and other jurisdictions that are suing drug companies have blamed the Sackler family, in part, for the opioid epidemic following Purdue’s development of OxyContin in 1996. In federal court, the communities argue they were flooded with painkillers, fueling the opioid crisis that has killed more than 450,000 people in the United States in the past two decades.

Purdue, with headquarters in Stamford, Conn., has earned more than $30 billion since OxyContin arrived on the market. The congressional panel focused on the profits made by the family during the opioid crisis, noting that the family withdrew more than $10 billion from the company and displaying pictures of David Sackler’s multimillion-dollar real estate properties.

“Watching you testify makes my blood boil,” Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) told David Sackler. “I’m not sure that I’m aware of any family in America that’s more evil than yours.”

The hearing, held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, took place after the committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), threatened the Sacklers with subpoenas. Before lawmakers’ questions, the panel aired video remarks by parents whose children died of overdoses.

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David Sackler and Kathe Sackler are descendants of two of the three Sackler brothers who bought the company, then called Purdue Frederick, in 1952. The family of one of the brothers, Arthur Sackler, sold its share in the company before OxyContin was put on the market. The rest of the Sackler family exited the company board in 2018.

Maloney and others repeatedly asked David Sackler and Kathe Sackler whether they would apologize for their participation in the epidemic or whether they felt guilt.

“I have tried to figure out if there’s anything I could have done differently knowing what I knew then, not what I know now,” Kathe Sackler responded. “I have to say there is nothing I can find that I would have done differently.”

The Sacklers instead blamed nameless individuals in the company.

Three executives, none of them Sackler family members, pleaded guilty to deceptive marketing charges in 2007 as part of a $600 million settlement with the Justice Department.

Following that settlement, the company continued to profit from OxyContin sales, Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) noted in his questioning.

“You want to ask what you could have done differently?” he asked. “Look at your own damn balance sheet.”

In October, the Justice Department announced another settlement to resolve criminal and civil charges against Purdue and civil charges against four Sackler family members. The $8.3 billion deal capped a federal investigation of programs that offered incentives to doctors and an electronic health records company for driving opioid prescriptions.

The settlement does not shield family members from possibly facing criminal charges.

The Justice Department also agreed to convert the business to a public benefit company, allowing the company’s profits to be used for abating the opioid crisis. The change was initially suggested by Purdue and the Sacklers when the company filed for bankruptcy last year. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain gave the agreement the green light last month.

Twenty-five state attorneys general opposed that part of the settlement in a letter to Attorney General William P. Barr, citing the ongoing litigation the company faces. The group, which included Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D), wrote that reestablishing the company would shield members of the Sackler family from personal liability.

“What we do now matters,” Healey wrote to the House committee ahead of the Sacklers’ testimony. “If we let powerful people cover up the facts, avoid accountability, or create a government-sponsored OxyContin business — that’s not justice. This time, we have to get it right.”

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The hearing took place a day after the Senate Finance Committee released a report that accounted for $65 million the largest drug companies donated to nonprofit groups that advocated for opioids to be used to treat pain, effectively boosting the sales of prescription painkillers.

The 10 nonprofits, including patient advocacy groups and medical associations, influenced doctors’ prescribing practices for opioids and lobbied lawmakers on pain- and opioid-related policies.

“These industry-developed materials and talking points frequently downplayed or distracted from the addictive nature of prescription opioids,” according to the report.