KTEP - El Paso, Texas

The Purdue Pharma Deal Would Deliver Billions, But Individual Payouts Will Be Small

Sep 28, 2021
Originally published on September 29, 2021 9:34 am

The multibillion-dollar bankruptcy settlement with Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family is grounded in an opioid crisis that has injured or killed an untold number of Americans.

But many of the 138,000 individuals who've filed claims for a death, expenses tied to their addiction or the birth of a child exposed to opioids during pregnancy expect to receive little if anything from the deal.

Loading...

For her claim, Lynn Wencus of Wretham, Mass., collected a long, painful thread of receipts for prescriptions, urine tests, doctors visits, detox and rehab stays. Now that paper trail will be converted to points on a chart created during the Purdue Pharma settlement. The points will determine how much her son Jeff's life was worth. He died after an opioid overdose in 2017.

"There's no amount of money that would ease the pain or suffering that he went through, that my family went through," Lynn Wencus says. "But the chart — it's a spit in the face."

The maximum award for Jeff Wencus' death would be between $26,000 and $40,000. It could be 20% higher or lower, depending on the final settlement resolution. None of the amounts touch the more than $125,000 the Wencus family spent on Jeff's care. And they'll only get what's left after attorney and administrative fees as well as outstanding medical claims are paid — so possibly nothing.

"I knew awhile ago that the individual claimants were getting thrown aside in this bankruptcy case," Wencus says.

An emphasis on prevention rather than the past

About 90% of the settlement, which could deliver between $6 billion and $10 billion over time, will go to states, local governments and tribes. They're supposed to use it to fight the opioid crisis. University of Connecticut law school professor Alexandra Lahav says that ratio prioritizes the greater good, going forward.

"To me it shows an emphasis on how do we fix what is broken for the future," says Lahav, "versus people who were already hurt in the past."

Lahav says she sympathizes with individuals who call the settlement unfair. That maximum payment for a death, in the range of $40,000, is a fraction of what other drugmakers have paid to settle lawsuits, according to attorneys who review such cases.

But this settlement is different because it was negotiated in bankruptcy court and there was a fixed pot of money. Lawyers representing individuals and all the states disagreed about how to divide it. Some attorneys who followed the proceedings say states had the advantage and prevailed.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, one of the last AGs to sign the deal, says spending most of the money on prevention, treatment and recovery means it will reach people who could not or did not sue Purdue.

"So all of those families — and they are the vast, vast majority of families and individuals harmed by the crisis — they're going to be helped through what we were able to do," Healey says.

Sean Higgins, an attorney representing individuals, wrote in an emailed statement that using the money that is not going directly to victims to slow the opioid epidemic "is consistent with the victims' goal to prevent others from suffering the same plight."

A vote, but no real choice

That's why Wencus voted to approve the deal she calls an insult. Ryan Hampton, who's in recovery from an addiction to opioids, says "yes" was his only choice.

"Without it, victims would have received nothing," says Hampton, who co-chaired a committee that helped negotiate the settlement. "It felt like we were being held hostage."

Hampton resigned just before the deal was approved and has written a memoir about the bankruptcy proceedings. He only expects to qualify for the minimum payment, $3,500. His treatment bills totaled nearly $500,000, but Hampton says receipts that would prove a link to his Purdue painkillers are long gone.

"Many families across this country who actually lost loved ones are going to qualify probably for that minimum payout because they're having the exact same issues locating these records," Hampton says.

If the Purdue Sackler settlement survives appeals, individuals could see the first small checks late next year.

Demonstrators scatter fake money and prescription bottles of OxyContin in August outside of U.S. Bankruptcy Court in White Plains, where the Purdue bankruptcy hearings were held.
Erik McGregor / LightRocket via Getty Images

Hampton and Wencus say a lot of what bothers them about the settlement seems rooted in discrimination.

"There is still so much stigma associated with substance use disorder," Wencus says, "and there are still many, many people who believe it's not a disease, it's a choice."

That's a perception that money flowing into treatment and prevention could help correct.

Kathy Strain has been battling that perception for decades. She'll file a claim for a grandchild exposed to opioids in the womb. Guardians often don't know the extent of the hearing, vision or learning deficits these children may face. Strain says she's already spent much more than the $7,000 to $10,000 maximum award she might receive for neonatal abstinence syndrome. But Strain says she's done with the court fight.

"It's time to get this done and over with, get this money into our communities," says Strain, who works in drug use prevention programs. "We need resources today, not five years from now."

Copyright 2021 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

NOEL KING, HOST:

People who were addicted to OxyContin or lost their loved ones to the drug will get little in compensation from the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy. Martha Bebinger from member station WBUR in Boston explains why.

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: Lynn Wencus is one of 138,000 individuals included in the Purdue Sackler settlement. Her son, Jeff, died after an opioid overdose in 2017. To file a claim, Lynn Wencus collected a long, painful thread of receipts for prescriptions, urine tests, doctor's visits, detox and rehab stays and sent them to her lawyer's office.

LYNN WENCUS: I must have mailed them about 200 pages of information that I had through Jeff's almost 10 years of addiction.

BEBINGER: Now that paper trail will be converted to points on a chart in the Purdue Sackler settlement. The points will determine how much Jeff's life was worth.

WENCUS: There's no amount of money that would ease the pain or suffering that he went through, that my family went through. But the chart is a - it's a spit in the face, to be honest with you.

BEBINGER: The maximum award for Jeff's death would be about $40,000. That doesn't touch what the Wencus family spent on Jeff's care. And they'll only get what's left after attorney's fees and outstanding medical claims are paid. Lynn Wencus doesn't know if she'll get anything.

WENCUS: I knew a while ago that the individual claimants were getting thrown aside in this bankruptcy case.

BEBINGER: Thrown aside and assigned little value. Attorneys who review such cases say that $40,000 maximum payment is a fraction of what other drug makers have paid to settle lawsuits. But this settlement was negotiated in bankruptcy court, and that limited what Wencus and others could expect, says Lindsey Simon, who's at the University of Georgia School of Law. In a bankruptcy, there's a fixed pot of money to divide. Individuals argued for a larger share, but lawyers representing the states won. Here's Simon.

LINDSEY SIMON: Do I think that individual claimants were represented? Yes. Do I think the power structure was ultimately in their favor in these negotiations? Probably not.

BEBINGER: The result - individuals will get about 10% of the funds. But many could benefit from money going to the states because it's all supposed to be used to slow the opioid crisis. University of Connecticut law professor Alexandra Lahav says the settlement prioritizes the greater good.

ALEXANDRA LAHAV: To me, it shows an emphasis on, how do we fix what is broken for the future versus people who were already hurt in the past?

BEBINGER: Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, one of the last AGs to sign the deal, says sending most of the money to the states to fund prevention, treatment and recovery means it will reach people who could not or did not sue Purdue.

MAURA HEALEY: So all of those families - and they're the vast, vast majority of families and individuals harmed by the crisis - they're going to be helped through what we were able to do.

BEBINGER: In the end, Lynn Wencus joined the many individuals who voted for the deal, even though she says it's an insult to her son.

WENCUS: If we can take the money that was awarded to the states and do good with it, then another life can be saved so another parent or loved one doesn't have to experience the loss that we have experienced.

BEBINGER: There's a range of views among the individuals who voted yes. Ryan Hampton, who's in recovery from an addiction to opioids, co-chaired a committee that helped negotiate the settlement.

RYAN HAMPTON: Without it, victims would have received nothing. It felt like we were being held hostage.

BEBINGER: Hampton resigned just before the deal was approved and has written a memoir about the bankruptcy proceedings. Hampton only expects to qualify for the minimum payment - $3,500. His treatment bills total nearly half a million dollars. But Hampton says receipts for his Purdue painkillers are long gone. He's angry that is true for many individuals he tried to represent.

HAMPTON: Many families across this country who actually lost loved ones are going to qualify probably for that minimum payout because they're having the exact same issues locating these records. So it was a really high bar to reach.

BEBINGER: Hampton and Wencus say a lot of what bothers them about the settlement seems rooted in discrimination.

WENCUS: There is still so much stigma associated with substance use disorder. And there's still many, many people that believe it's not a disease. It's a choice.

BEBINGER: That's a perception money flowing into treatment and prevention could help correct. The first small checks could reach individuals late next year if the Purdue settlement survives appeals.

For NPR News, I'm Martha Bebinger in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOCKHEAD'S "INSOMNIAC OLYMPICS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.