Since he was sworn in as Connecticut attorney general in January 2019, William Tong has frequently said opioid victims’ family members and survivors of addiction stood behind him in opposing a settlement with OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma.
Now, many of them say they back him after he announced last week Connecticut would join a $6 billion national settlement with the Stamford-based company and the Sackler family members who own the firm. The pact is set to deliver about $95 million to Connecticut for prevention and treatment efforts to respond to an epidemic that has resulted in thousands of overdose deaths in the state in the past few years.
Acceptance of the settlement by many of those acutely affected by the crisis reflects their belief that the eight states, including Connecticut, that had appealed Purdue’s settlement plan after it was approved last year by the judge overseeing the company’s bankruptcy
had fought as hard as they could. At the same time, survivors and victims’ relatives said they were not giving up their fight for accountability, with a number of them calling for new criminal investigations focused on the company.
“I’m relieved that the dissenting states have now settled and that the settlement is moving forward,” Norwalk resident Dede Yoder, whose son died from an overdose of fentanyl and carfentanil at age 21 in 2017, after being prescribed OxyContin as a teenager, said in an interview. “It’s been a difficult process for me and I’m sure for other victims.”
‘It’s the best he could have done’
Purdue and the Sacklers are reviled by many parents whose children have died from opioid overdoses. They agree with the accusations in Connecticut’s lawsuit and several thousand others filed against Purdue in recent years that allege the company fueled the opioid crisis with deceptive marketing of OxyContin, a prescription opioid that is the firm’s top-selling drug.
But a growing number of them were willing to accept a deal as the litigation dragged on — Purdue filed for bankruptcy in September 2019 — and as a larger payout became unattainable. The settlement announced last week will deliver $1.675 billion more to victims, survivors and states than the total in the plan endorsed last September by bankruptcy judge Robert Drain.
Southington residents Christine Gagnon and Liz Fitzgerald are two of the parents who supported the state’s appeal, but who now agree with Tong’s decision to settle.
“The settlement wasn’t an ideal outcome,” Gagnon, whose 22-year-old son died in 2017 after taking fentanyl, after being prescribed OxyContin as a teenager, said in an interview. “But I accept the outcome due to the fact that I trust our attorney general.”
Fitzgerald joined Tong at the press conference he held Thursday at his office in Hartford to announce the settlement. One of her four sons died at age 25 in 2013 after taking heroin, and another of her sons died at age 32 in 2017 after taking fentanyl. Fitzgerald said both sons’ opioid addictions began after taking OxyContin.
“I think it’s the best he (Tong) could have done,” Fitzgerald said. “I think there’s still more to be done, but I will support him 100 percent.”
The new deal preserves funds earmarked for survivors and victims’ family members. In its settlement plan, Purdue allocated approximately $700 million to $750 million for personal-injury claimants. Recipients would receive payments between $3,500 and $48,000, according to Purdue’s terms.
Connecticut may use a to-be-determined portion of its $95 million share of the settlement funds to establish an Opioid Survivors Trust to directly help survivors and victims of the opioid epidemic.
Those provisions allayed the concerns of Ryan Hampton, a former chairman of a key committee in Purdue’s bankruptcy. He had posted a series of tweets in early January about his worries that the appealing states might jeopardize the personal-injury payments.
“I believe Attorney General Tong and the other (appealing) attorneys general made the only decision that they could at this point,” Hampton, a Las Vegas resident in recovery from opioid addiction that began when he was prescribed OxyContin, said in an interview. “He realized that any further stalling of the plan would have a direct impact on his constituents in terms of funding for abatement and also direct victim compensation and made the very tempered decision that he wasn’t going to hold that up any longer.”
Officials at Shatterproof, a Norwalk nonprofit working to end the addiction crisis in the US, said they were also encouraged by the settlement announcement.
“While no amount of money will ever compensate for the staggering loss of life caused by the opioid crisis, the resolution of this and other cases will provide unprecedented funding to address the addiction crisis in America and save lives,” Kristen Pendergrass, Shatterproof’s vice president of state policy, said in a post on the organization’s website.
But the settlement does not have universal support. Among the opponents are Fernando Luis Alvarez, a Connecticut-based art gallerist who has organized several protests against Purdue in the past few years, including the installation of a giant spoon outside the company’s headquarters in downtown Stamford in June 2018.
“Had these AGs decided to fight this until the end, the federal government would have found no choice but to provide even greater financial assistance to a problem, it, too, helped create,” Alvarez said in an email. “In fact, I am sure that if the AGs had decided to stick to the fight, plenty of senators and congressmen would even create laws to provide funding to the states to treat the opioid problem.”
Alvarez added that “the key here should have been correcting the problem by exhausting the deep pockets of the Sacklers until dried out” and “not doing so sets an irresponsible precedent” that would incentivize misconduct.
Focus on criminal prosecution
But many survivors and victims’ relative support the settlement because it maintains the possibility of criminal prosecution of people who have been involved with Purdue, including the Sacklers.
“I would like to focus more on that criminal liability piece, which is not prevented through the plan,” Hampton said. “We need to hold them criminally responsible.”
Yoder said the Sacklers involved with Purdue “should definitely be criminally prosecuted. They have blood on their hands.”
As part of a settlement with the Department of Justice, Purdue as a company pleaded guilty in November 2020 to three criminal charges of conspiring to defraud the government and violate anti-kickback law. No individuals, however, were charged in connection with that plea.
At the same time, the Sacklers involved with Purdue agreed to a $225 million settlement with the Justice Department to resolve allegations of marketing and financial misconduct. The Sacklers did not admit to any wrongdoing as part of that deal, and they have also denied the lawsuits’ accusations.
Tong has criticized the lack of criminal prosecution of individuals involved with Purdue. He cannot take such action because the Connecticut attorney general’s office does not have the authority to launch criminal investigations.
“People who are responsible should go to jail,” Tong said at the press conference. He declined to name the people he thought should be prosecuted, adding that, “I’ll leave that to the criminal authorities.”
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