HUNTINGTON — Purdue Pharma, the creator of OxyContin, admitted in federal court Tuesday to conspiring to defraud the federal government of its practices, which included paying doctors to misrepresent the dangers of the drug.
At one point the company marketed the drug in the Huntington area — one of the hardest hit by the opioid crisis — at a rate 32 times that of other areas across the nation.
According to U.S. Attorney Rachael A. Honig in the district of New Jersey, Purdue pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Madeline Cox Arleo in Newark federal court to an information charging it with one count of dual-object conspiracy to defraud the United States and to violate the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and two counts of conspiracy to violate the federal Anti-Kickback Statute.
Honing said the company admitted it marketed and sold its opioid products to health care providers, despite having reasons to believe the patients were diverting them to abusers.
“The company lied to the Drug Enforcement Administration about steps it had taken to prevent such diversion, fraudulently increasing the amount of its products it was permitted to sell,” she said. “Purdue also paid kickbacks to providers to encourage them to prescribe even more of its products.”
The guilty plea comes as part of an $8.3 billion settlement, which will most likely end federal probes of its questionable marketing of OxyContin, a highly addictive opioid painkiller blamed for starting the opioid epidemic.
The company still faces hundreds of civil claims made by local and state governments, such as Huntington and Cabell County, as well as individuals. Purdue had previously proposed a $10 billion settlement for those claims. The company filed for Chapter 11 protection in a New York bankruptcy court as a result of the claims.
The settlement absolves Purdue’s owners, members of the Sackler family, from individual civil liability, although they will pay $225 million out of pocket as part of the settlement.
Purdue admitted from May 2007 to March 2017 it conspired to defraud the United States by representing to the DEA it maintained an effective anti-diversion program, when it had continued to market its opioid products to more than 100 health care providers who the company should have known were overprescribing the drug.
Purdue provided the DEA misleading information to boost its manufacturing quotas, including prescription data that included prescriptions written by doctors engaged in diversion, the attorney said.
The company also admitted it violated the federal Anti-Kickback Statute by paying at least two doctors from June 2009 to March 2017 as part of its speaker program to encourage other doctors to write more prescriptions of their opioid products.
In the complaint, Scott Hadland, a pediatrician and researcher at the Grayken Center for Addiction Medicine, said studies showed areas hit the hardest by the opioid crisis were the same areas targeted by that marketing.
Cabell County and the city of Huntington named Purdue Pharma as one of the companies responsible for fueling the opioid epidemic in the area. Cabell County received 32 times more dollars in opioid marketing than the national average, or about $1,000 per person.
Data from the DEA detailing how many pills opioid firms shipped to West Virginia and across the nation for several years showed from 2006 to 2014, more than 1.1 billion prescription pain pills were supplied to West Virginia, peaking in 2012 before the number of pills shipped decreased, aligning with a rise of heroin abuse.
During those years, the number of overdose deaths in the state skyrocketed, either from prescription drugs or illicit drugs, and Cabell County led in the number of overdoses in the state for many of those years.