Last month, I got an email from a dear old friend from Kentucky with devastating news. Her daughter Kathryn had died of an opioid overdose. I was stunned, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been. I knew she had long struggled with addiction: A talented artist and writer, she was prescribed an opioid for wrist pain at 19, and that’s all it took. Eventually, she began using heroin, and now she had overdosed on fentanyl. It’s the same tragic path tens of thousands of other young Americans have traveled.

Kathryn’s mother had a request for me. Could I help her find addresses for members of the Sackler family, who founded and still control the opioid maker Purdue Pharma. She wanted to write to them, as well as executives of Purdue and other companies that sold and distributed opioids, “so they could see what the destruction they created looks like, what a person who was destroyed looked like and how much she mattered.”

I thought of Kathryn and her mother after I learned Monday that the Kentucky Supreme Court denied Purdue’s last-gasp effort to halt the release of sealed company documents that may contain new revelations about its marketing of the prescription opioid OxyContin. It was excessive prescribing of that potent painkiller, by doctors unaware of just how addictive it was, that kickstarted the opioid epidemic two decades ago.

advertisement

And I thought of how much has changed since that day in early 2016 when STAT reporter David Armstrong approached me, his editor, with an idea. He had heard about a stash of internal Purdue documents under seal in a remote Kentucky courthouse, and he proposed we file a motion to unseal them.

At the time, Purdue still brought to mind a university in Indiana — not a colossus among pain pill makers. Museums, aware of the family’s munificence, were eager to slap the Sacklers’ name on their galleries. And though nearly 100 people a day were dying of opioid overdoses, the epidemic wasn’t yet making daily headlines across America.

It was just three and a half years ago, but it seems an eternity: Most Americans had little understanding of Purdue’s and the secretive Sacklers’ role in the genesis of the opioid crisis.

The Kentucky trove, Dave told me, purportedly contained details about Purdue’s aggressive, and allegedly illegal, marketing of OxyContin, which had made the company billions of dollars since its launch in 1996. Most enticingly, Dave had been told that within those files was the only sworn deposition ever taken of a member of the Sackler family. No Sacklers had ever been required to publicly account for their company’s actions to downplay the addictive nature of OxyContin.

Kathryn at age 19. She died at 29. Family photo

I had seen firsthand the damage OxyContin had done to Kentucky. As a reporter at the Louisville Courier-Journal, I’d written about the early days of the opioid epidemic. In the early 2000s, I’d interviewed family members of young men who had overdosed on a cocktail of pills including OxyContin. I’d written about a pill mill in northeastern Kentucky where the parking lot would fill up with cars from as far away as Florida. Customers paid $80 to $100 in cash to see a doctor who would hand them an OxyContin prescription after being shown an X-ray printed from the internet. Patients would walk outside and hand the scan to the next person in line.

So I immediately saw the importance of the Purdue records. I also happened to know the best media lawyer in Kentucky from my days at the C-J. I called Jon Fleischaker in Louisville and told him what we had in mind. He was excited to take on the case, but he cautioned that it would be a long shot. Our chances of winning would be much less than 50-50.

Jon also said the case could be costly. STAT was a startup, then just a few months old, and Purdue had endless cash at its disposal. Even if we won at the trial court, the company would be sure to appeal all the way up to the state Supreme Court and drag out the litigation as long as possible.

I thought it was worth the fight, but it wasn’t my money. We had to ask John W. Henry, our owner and publisher. I was fairly confident he would give us the go-ahead, but I wasn’t sure. After all, he was relatively new to the journalism game — he knew way more about owning sports teams and running a hedge fund.

Rick Berke, our executive editor, and I outlined what we hoped to do.  We told John that taking on Purdue would cost tens of thousands of dollars, and that our lawyers warned us we would probably lose.

He did not hesitate: That’s why I started STAT, he said emphatically, to pursue just this kind of case so the public would learn the truth.

We filed the motion in March 2016, and I was shocked two months later when a local judge in Pike County — a place hard-hit by fatal opioid overdoses — ruled in our favor. “The court sees no higher value than the public (via the media) having access to these discovery materials so that the public can see the facts for themselves,” Circuit Court Judge Steven Combs wrote.

As expected, Purdue appealed. Months went by, then years. Every Friday at 10 a.m., when the Kentucky Court of Appeals announces the week’s opinions, I religiously checked its website. All the while, states, tribes, and local governments were filing some 2,000 lawsuits against Purdue and, in many cases, the Sacklers and other drug makers and distributors. That only heightened interest in the release of the sealed records.

Purdue countered with a PR offensive, portraying the company as a responsible corporate citizen. Newspaper ads highlighted its efforts to combat what it called “the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis” — phrasing that blames the crisis on the people taking opioids rather than the addictive drugs themselves.

The appellate ruling — affirming Combs’ decision — finally came last December, almost three years after Dave first raised his idea. Purdue, not surprisingly, asked the state Supreme Court to let it appeal. That’s what the justices decided against last week, meaning the records can now be made public.

Meanwhile, the case became personal for me. I may not be able to find the Sacklers’ addresses for Kathryn’s mom. But now I am hopeful that we will come closer to finally finding — for her and everyone else touched by this crisis — the whole truth about the way Purdue and the Sacklers promoted the sale of OxyContin.

Gideon Gil is a managing editor of STAT and oversaw the legal fight with Purdue and coverage of the opioid crisis.

Leave a Comment

Please enter your name.
Please enter a comment.

  • Well I’m on the other side of the witch-hunt . I’m a chronic pain patient for ten years. My doctor was arrested for doing his job just so sv can seize his assests and keep them. I didn’t do anything wrong yet I’m suffering without my medicine for months and I am so tired of being told to take an ibuprofen! Drunk drivers kill themselves and others everyday so what then we should take every one’s cars and license s away? This is bull crap and I’m fed up! People of on ibuprofen all the time. Now there’s an ibuprofen crisis cause of doctors too scared to do thier jobs. I’m going to kill myself if I don’t get my medicine soon and I damn well mean it!!! You people are just a car wreck away from needing pain meds yourselves! My advice,Take an ibuprofen!!!!

  • To paraphrase Dustin Hoffman as Capt. Hook) in the movie HOOK, with Robin Williams, as Peter, at a baseball game: “bad form!”.

    Your feeble slight at the author reeks of trollese at best, or tacit endorsenent of premeditated mass murder at worse.

    As Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon mentioned about an album cover photo shoot, in a NY subway station (rejected by the album producers or lsbel), the shot included the image of “the old familiar suggestion”.

  • Nora Volkow, Director at NIDA wrote a letter to Federal officials in 2004 detailing the rise in the use of crushed oxys, as well as increased meth and psycho-stimulant use. The DEA, as obvious from the data published in the Washington Post, had the COMPLETE REAL-TIME picture of the opiod flow from manufacturer through distributor to pharmacies going back to at least 2006, while the other parts of the chain, however greedy, had partial data tto work from. At any point the Federal, or cooperating State agencies could, and should, have intervened to stop the flow of pills to areas that were only serving as pill mills by unscrupulous doctors & P.A.s.
    None of this takes away from the fact that , per SAMHSA, near 80% of non-medical opiod pill users were taking DIVERTED pills never prescribed for them. The stories of the opiod naive patient becoming addicted makes for sexy attention grabbing headlines, but represents the minority of cases. Look at the BMJ 2018 report on 500,000 surgical patients from 2006-2013 who were given post-op opiods: only .6% showed signs of MISUSE. The Krebs/SPACE VA study on long term opiod use may have been misapplied to cases of knee OA and backache, but note that NOT ONE of the patients on opiods at years end, all pre-screened and undergoing PDMP and random urinalysis, showed ANY SIGN OF MISUSE/ABUSE of prescribed or any other licit/illicit drugs. Most people who had a legitimate prescription and ended up with an addiction problem had a prior history of substance abuse and/or a mental health issue, deliberately misled a physician with too little time to make an accurate assessment with the insurance companies allotted 15 minutes per patient, or abused the directions either foolishly believing the pill was meant to relieve every little twinge or hoping that taking their pills at a more frequent rate might allow for a faster return to normal activity. (Heard a mother making the rounds on talk radio last year discussing her book about a hockey playing son who supplemented his opiods with street drugs because he didn’t want his shoulder injury to keep him off the ice. She found out, and enabled him to full heroin addiction and OD, now, of course, blaming the prescription drugs.). And let’s not forget the majority of OD’s, and self-reported cases of misuse under SAMHSA, involve polypharmacy and usage of alcohol.

    Not saying that there aren’t legitimate cases of addiction, some due to genetic makeup, with realistic (as in non-self serving Kolodny) ranges of 1-8%, but for most people long term use is a different matter of dependence, a side effect not uncommon in many classes of drugs.

    The Pharmaceuticals are out to make money for their shareholders. That’s their job, and they play within a regulations setup and enforced by the various government entities, all of which were lacking and deserve the most blame: they just don’t make money suing themselves. Biggest example: Florida pill mills. A recent news broadcast jumped on big Pharma about doctors prescribing all these drugs to patients they barely examine, glossing over the fact that Florida legislators gave those physicians the right to not only prescribe, but to also DISPENSE narcotic and other medications. Ohio is now suing Pharmaceutical companies that it has tempted with HUGE TAX INCENTIVES to do business through their state. Their revenue department doesn’t know what’s trafficked when it’s levying taxes? Pharma is just a deep pocket for the states, and corporations a usual and convenient villain for the media and politicians. But like the paper in Science Mag from last October out of the Univ of Pittsburgh stated, opiod pills were just a temporary flavor in a 40 yr escalating Drug Epidemic that has moved on to illicit fentanyl, heroin, cheaper meth and crack. Fighting the wrong villian, and looking at an old skirmish while a new war awaits. Sad.

  • Also of verifying interest is the online article in THE NEW YORKER, entitled EMPIRE OF PAIN, pn the overt criminality of the Sacklers and Purdue Drugs. Additionally, a verdict was handed down yesteday against Johnson and Johnson in Oklahoma for $572 million dollars on their criminal complicity in the premeditated ongoing opiate crisis.

  • I have a hard time believing everyone was oblivious about these medications. The reality is many many people have refused any personal responsibility or accountability about themselves or their loved one making extremely poor and or stupid decisions about use of these opioid medications. So now everyone else is suffering because of the actions of other people. Very few bad outcomes involving opioid prescriptions occurred because people where totally using them correctly as directed..it happens but not that much. Everyone who abused or lost someone who did is of course often very fast misplacing blame and out for a legal payday windfall or prosecution otherwise. Meanwhile everyone with degenerative disc disease, spondylosis, severe nerve pain or whatever has to eat shit and suffer. I am sick of hearing people especially drs who still lay the blame of opioid deaths on prescription medications still..total bullshit and propoganda nonsense! Street fentynl w heroin is what is killing people like flies you stupid twits. Drs and pharmacy staff will lie right to your face and I enjoy calling them on it. Ive been called a sociopath and probably so..but they know im right and taking away opioids from suffering patients is no less psychopath than myself hmm? Lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies is merely slight of hand to distract from personal responsibility and greed personified..like all these lame gimicky hippy dippy meditation and over use of steroid injections or retards over prescribing gabapentin or antidepressants that drive some half mad. It all makes me sick. I unfortunately had to resort to methadone clinic when my doctor suddenly cut out of the clinic because of a certain insys spray greed fiasco..so I puked and crapped all over for a week then tapped out called clinic before eating a 357 magnum hollow point. So im on 100mg of methadone a day quite satisfied and my spondylosis is well managed. Stupidity is a good fraction of this dumb ass epidemic.🙈💀🤡

    • You have a hard time believing that people who were prescribed these medications and were told they were safe by doctors didn’t know that they were as addictive as they were? Especially in the early days of the epidemic that seems perfectly believable. People get addicted to the prescribed medications and then when their prescription dries up they seek out illegal cheaper equivalents like heroin and fentanyl. People have been doing those drugs for ages but the issue is that the opioid push was getting a new population of people with chronic pain who had never done illegal drugs before hooked on opioids. So yes that is what is killing people but for many the addiction STARTED with legally prescribed pain meds, which were represented falsely as being less addictive and less strong than they really were. This issue is more complex than it is often being portrayed (theres a huge gap in effectiveness between types of pain meds and as someone who has had them prescribed and is not addicted obviously not everyone who is prescribed opioids goes on to abuse them) but use your head. Obviously personal responsibility is a factor but if a company lied about how their drug works in order to push prescriptions and if doctors let fancy dinners and sometimes out right bribes cloud their judgement about prescribing such medication then they deserve at least some of the blame.

    • The FDA did not require black box warnings on these drugs until June 2, 2016. STAT motion filed March 2016. Before that, the FDA was asleep.

Your daily dose of news in health and medicine

Privacy Policy