‘Merely the sum of a bad bargain’: Judge strikes down $6 billion settlement over opioid epidemic

NEW YORK — A federal judge on Thursday overturned the multi-billion dollar settlement between Purdue Pharma and state and local governments over the opioid epidemic, opening the door for the launch of more lawsuits by individuals and counties across the country.

Judge Dan Polster of the Northern District of Ohio, who had previously blasted the settlement as inadequate and paid for by taxpayers, ruled that it did not pass muster under state and federal law. In an order that said he based his decision on the “lawful conduct of the company and its influence on the opioid epidemic,” Polster also called the terms a “gross misapplication of the law.”

The tentative pact, which Purdue Pharma had privately negotiated in 2016 in a little-noticed deal with more than a dozen states and cities, was scheduled to be finalized on Dec. 4.

But for many lawmakers and public health officials, Polster’s ruling raised new questions about the deal and the merits of prescribing opioids over more affordable, less addictive medication such as medication to control blood pressure. In recent years, numerous lawsuits and legal actions have been filed against Purdue Pharma and other pharmaceutical companies over the widespread opioid epidemic, which led to more than 56,000 deaths in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a statement Thursday, Purdue Pharma spokesman Robert Josephson disputed the court’s decision and said the company would appeal it. He said the agreement with the states was “fair, reasonable and adequate.”

“Purdue agreed to remove opioids from the reference list in the company’s premier product school to ensure that doctors can still prescribe opioids for serious pain but in a less addictive form,” Josephson said. “This action resulted in a dramatic drop in opioid prescribing, and the settlement was based upon this substantial benefit to public health.”

Jeffrey Shaw, a spokesman for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, said the state of Ohio was reviewing Polster’s order. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine had declined to comment on the judge’s decision.

“We will continue to work with all other states, local governments and counties that agree to the settlement to pursue their legitimate claims,” Shaw said.

A spokesman for the District of Columbia Attorney General’s Office did not respond to requests for comment. The office filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma last year.

Governors from 29 states, including New York, Florida and California, signed a letter in April urging Polster to veto the settlement. They argued that the agreement would reduce the opioid supply while accomplishing little to deter opioid addiction. More than 500 local and state governments had previously joined the lawsuit.

“It is impossible to analyze the public-health benefits from this settlement — when you divide it by the number of Americans who have overdosed and died from opioid overdoses — and conclude that the settlement is in the best interests of the United States,” the governors wrote.

Polster, who in June had criticized the settlement as premature, had also claimed that the government had “failed to establish that Purdue played a direct role in causing the opioid epidemic.” But in a filing in June, the judge acknowledged that doctors, insurers and pharmacists were among Purdue’s co-defendants in the pending litigation. Purdue’s violations of the Controlled Substances Act and federal drug laws, the judge wrote, “led directly to the harm caused by Purdue’s opioids.”

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