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Purdue Pharma pleads guilty to criminal charges for its opioid marketing

By Sophia Lyons

OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to its marketing of the painkiller and must pay penalties of over $8 billion, the New York Times reports.

The company pleaded guilty to felony charges of defrauding federal health agencies and violating anti-kickback laws, through marketing opioids to more than 100 doctors it suspected of writing illegal prescriptions then lying about it to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. It also pleaded guilty to paying illegal kickbacks to doctors and an electronic health records company. The company is also alleged to have violated the False Claims Act by using aggressive marketing tactics to convince doctors to prescribe opioids unnecessarily; these prescriptions were also often financed through federal health care programs, such as Medicare, and experts say they helped fuel the opioid-addiction crisis tearing through the United States for decades.

The company's owners, members of the wealthy Sackler family, have agreed to pay $225 million in civil penalties; that's a small portion relative to the family's over $13 billion net worth, much of it made from OxyContin sales. The company will also pay $3.54 billion in criminal fines, $2 billion in criminal forfeiture of profits, and $2.8 billion in civil penalties. However, because Purdue Pharma filed bankruptcy in 2019, the penalties are being reviewed as part of bankruptcy proceedings, and is unlikely to pay anything close to the negotiated deal; it is likely to at least have to have to pay the criminal forfeiture of profits.

As part of the settlement, Purdue proposed the company be run by the government as a "public benefit company", with continued proceeds from OxyContin and several overdose-reversing medications going toward opioid abatement. Many state attorneys general sent a letter to federal Attorney General William Barr arguing the government shouldn't be in the opioid business, but should allow Purdue to run privately with government oversight.

This federal case is different from the thousands of other opioid-related lawsuits against other drug makers, distributors and pharmacy chains still pending in other federal and state courts. Purdue demanded its federal charges against it resolved before it would accept larger settlements with cities, tribes, states and individuals. Lawyers close to negotiations expect a finals settlement may be released early next year.

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