Purdue Pharma, the company that makes OxyContin and other drugs, filed court papers in New York on Sunday seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The bankruptcy would be part of a nationwide settlement deal if all is approved. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)
Photo: Toby Talbot
Photo: Toby Talbot

Georgia officials say Purdue funds should go toward opioid recovery

OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma made its first appearance in bankruptcy court Tuesday, less than a day after Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr announced in The Atlanta Journal Constitution that the state will join the bankruptcy deal.

The company says it could mean $10 billion or more for the states, cities and towns that have sued. Detractors don’t believe that and say it doesn’t do enough.

Carr says the risk of fighting the deal is worse than taking what’s offered and moving on.

“The resources that will become available under the proposed structural framework will help Georgia combat the opioid crisis and address the needs of people living in our communities who have been devastated by the actions of those who fueled it,” Carr’s office said in a statement, noting that 180,000 Georgians have an opioid use disorder.

“Even if the settling parties proceeded to a trial against the company, a jury verdict or court order — regardless of the amount it orders someone to pay — is only as good as the resources actually available to pay it,” the statement said.

If the settlement pans out, no one knows yet how much money might come to Georgia or how the state might use it. But health officials said Tuesday that it’s critical that the money go to substance abuse treatment and coping with the crisis.

“I want to see it used for recovery programs across our state. And I think there should be tight oversight to make sure that that’s done,” said state Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, the chairwoman of the House Health and Human Services Committee.

Like others, she cited the example of the nationwide tobacco settlement of 1998, when tobacco companies — who did not declare bankruptcy — agreed to pay more than $200 billion to states and programs. Much of that money wound up funding general state services. The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids ranks Georgia among the lowest states for spending of its tobacco money on smoking cessation programs recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The costs of the opioid epidemic to Georgia are legion. The state is arguing in its lawsuit against Purdue Pharma and other opioid companies that their actions not only led to addiction to their own drugs, but to other drugs down the line, after patients could no longer obtain prescriptions and turned to street drugs. The companies argue they cannot be held responsible for downstream harms.

Those costs, according to the state’s lawsuit, include policing for a new wave of drug users, the expense of prosecuting and jailing offenders, and money paid to obtain drugs such as Narcan to interrupt overdoses and secure training for officers on how to use them. They also include foster care costs for children whose families have been blown apart by addiction.

Not to mention rehab. There’s not enough, said Neil Campbell, the executive director of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, and the resources that are there as well as those that are coming must be used for education on the science of addiction.

“We have a huge shortage of behavioral health workforce,” she said.

Perhaps 80% to 90% of people with opioid use disorder never get treatment, she and others said. And misguided or ineffective treatment based on outdated myths is a problem. Education statewide — for the general public as well as caregivers, emergency room doctors and nurses — is key, she said.

Whatever the settlement amount is, it won’t erase the need for more insurance coverage for addicts, Campbell added.

But such decisions are a long way away. And the settlement, as controversial as it is now, isn’t even likely to stay the same.

Lindsey Simon, who teaches bankruptcy law as an assistant professor at the University of Georgia, spent Tuesday afternoon listening in by phone to Purdue Pharma’s first bankruptcy hearing. It went smoothly, she said, though it was clear the different parties are ready for a fight.

“The settlement will likely change,” she said. “Because bankruptcy is just a protracted negotiation. Everybody knows that things can shift. It happens in the hallway right before a hearing. It happens at the break in hearings.”

The biggest controversy is whether Purdue’s owner, the Sackler family, is getting away too easily.

Massachusetts Attorney General Mara Healey, who opposes the settlement, has said the Purdue offer may only be worth $4 billion, and that it wouldn’t touch the billions of dollars the Sackler family has already banked from the sale of OxyContin. Healey said Tuesday in a tweet: “We need to see Purdue’s offer for what it is and most importantly, for what it is not. It’s not accountability. It’s not transparency. And it’s not making perpetrators pay.”

Cooper understands the sentiment. She’s not privy to the details, she emphasized, but she said: “I personally would like to see the people who knew about it in jail. I think that would be about probably the only just, really correct punishment for them. But maybe that’s why the attorney general has decided that it’s best to go ahead. Maybe it’s that he feels we have a major crisis now, and it’s better to have the settlement money sooner rather than later.”

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