Anger, hope from families and survivors of opioid crisis
A multimillion-dollar settlement in the nation’s deadliest drug crisis brought no relief to Jodi Barber, whose 19-year-old son died of a prescription drug overdose. He became addicted to painkillers after breaking his collarbone.
“The pain is always going to be there as a parent,” said Barber of Orange County, California. “Knowing that it was preventable really hurts. All these deaths are preventable, and that hurts.”
Anger and hope tinged survivors’ reactions Tuesday to news that Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, had reached a $270 million settlement with the state of Oklahoma. Numerous lawsuits accuse the company of minimizing the addiction risk and pushing doctors to up dosages even as overdoses climbed. The Oklahoma settlement comes two months before the case was set for trial.
Cheryl Juaire had been organizing a group of hundreds of mothers to go to the first day of the trial and stand outside with photos of their dead children. No amount would have satisfied her, she said, and the deal means Purdue gets to avoid revealing its responsibility for the opioid epidemic at trial. Her 23-year-old son died of an overdose in 2011.
She pleaded with other states and cities suing the company not to settle, which she described as a “huge disservice to the tens of thousands of families here in the United States who buried a child.”
Others saw hope in a detail of the agreement: nearly $200 million for a national research center at Oklahoma State University in Tulsa.
Craig Box, whose son Austin was a 22-year-old standout linebacker for the Oklahoma Sooners when he died of a prescription drug overdose in 2011, said he was pleased by that. He praised Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter for pursuing the case aggressively.
“It’s a great day for the state of Oklahoma that they had the courage to fight this battle and push it as hard as they have, and candidly, that may have something to do with Purdue settling it, because Purdue’s been trying to continue to trial,” said Box, who anticipates testifying if the case against other drugmakers proceeds to trial.
Ryan Hampton of Los Angeles, who is in recovery from opioid addiction, would rather see the money go to people who need treatment now. He described the allocation of the funding, with most going to the university, as “unconscionable.”
“That money needs to go to front-line workers, to recovery and harm prevention,” Hampton said. “We already know what we need to do save lives. We need 100 percent of this money to fund direct services for people who need help immediately.”
In Owasso, Oklahoma, the news was just sinking in for Allison Baker, whose 38-year-old daughter died of an overdose in 2014. When told the settlement amount, she asked, “How do you put a value on the life of a little girl you raised and had hopes and dreams for and she’s just gone?”
Lance Lang, a 36-year-old recovering opioid addict from Oklahoma City, said while he empathizes with victims who wanted to see a trial, he’s hoping some money will go toward helping those still suffering from addiction.
“My heart breaks for those that we’ve already lost. I’ve buried several myself,” said Lang, who now works helping recovering addicts find housing. “But I also know we have waiting lists of dozens and dozens for our facilities, and the state has waiting lists of hundreds and hundreds of people who need help right now.”
While “disappointing” for families searching for answers, Oklahoma is getting “an astounding figure” and Purdue still faces thousands of claims, said Jonathan Novak, a lawyer representing the city of Albuquerque, the state of Utah and other governments in opioid lawsuits.
“I get that disappointment,” Novak said, “but this is the result people should be hoping for.”
Jarrod Barber would take OxyContin with his friends during the depths of his addiction, his mother said, and the settlement is a pittance.
“Hopefully they will end up bankrupt,” said Jodi Barber, “and every penny will be taken from them.”
Associated Press writers Geoff Mulvihill in Cherry Hill, New Jersey; Claire Galofaro in Louisville, Kentucky; and Sean Murphy and Ken Miller in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.