Pinal County Sues Family Members Of Purdue Pharma Owners Over Opioid Epidemic
MARK BRODIE: The deal reached this week between the U.S. Justice Department and the maker of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma, does not end the legal issues for the pharmaceutical company. Other states, counties and cities have legal claims against the firm and its owners, the Sackler family. Pinal County is one of them. It sued individual members of the Sackler family over damage the opioid epidemic did in that county. Several other Arizona counties, as well as a few cities and the state itself, have also filed lawsuits. With me to talk about what the deal announced this week means for his county's case is Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer. And Kent, first off, what do you make of the settlement announced this week?
KENT VOLKMER: On one hand, I'm glad that the government has been able to hold the Purdue family and the Sackler family accountable for their actions. I'm glad that there is a criminal penalty and there are significant fines. But probably most beneficial is the idea that the company is going to become a public benefit company, meaning that moving forward, our community as a whole will hopefully benefit from their patents and from their work.
BRODIE: So Pinal County filed a lawsuit naming the Sackler family as defendants, among others, with relation to Purdue Pharma. How does this settlement affect that lawsuit? And I'm curious how it affects some of the concerns that you had outlined in the lawsuit relative to Pinal County.
VOLKMER: So it has minimal impact on Pinal County. The Sacklers were just one of many entities. Our intention was to really go after the bad actors, hold them accountable and try to make some of the Pinal County residents whole. We'll never be able to fully restore them, but our objective is to make them as whole as we can under the circumstances. Of this settlement, we're not going to see a penny of. It goes all kinds of different places, but I do not anticipate that Pinal County will see a dollar. This does not necessarily let them off the hook. At this point, it is not our intention to — not to pursue them. This was criminal in nature. And the Department of Justice went after them. They are in bankruptcy, so this is something that the bankruptcy court will take into consideration. But as far as we're concerned, this does not let them off the hook.
BRODIE: So in terms of trying to make residents of your county as whole as you can under the circumstances, what would you like to see happen next? Like, what's the next step for you?
VOLKMER: Well, with regard to the Sackler family, they're being held criminally accountable. Now, it's about trying to get financial recourse. What we would love to do is bring some of that money back into our community to supplement and enhance our treatment services, to have residential treatment facilities, to address the underlying addiction that not just the Sackler family, not just Purdue, but the opioid epidemic in its entirety has caused. It's important for us to be able to try to fix the problem that they created.
BRODIE: How big of a problem has the opioid epidemic been in Pinal County specifically?
VOLKMER: It's been devastating to a number of families and a number of people. We have people that overdose on a weekly basis. Those are loved ones that are passing away, those are members of our society that are passing away. And the other issue that we have is it's impacting the ability of those that actually need opioids because they suffer from chronic abuse to be able to have readily and easy access to those drugs. Instead, it becomes very restrictive. And we have people that need the opioids to survive because their chronic pain that are being impacted. And then finally, it's hard to quantify the actual damage it's done because once people are addicted to one drug, they go to the next drug. If getting prescription opioid pills becomes too expensive, they may turn to heroin, which is cheaper, or they may turn to methamphetamine. And it perpetuates this very vicious cycle of addiction.
BRODIE: So the state, as you know, a couple of years ago, passed a series of measures aimed at trying to curb the effects of the epidemic in terms of reducing the amount of pills that doctors could prescribe, things like that. Has that made an impact in Pinal County?
VOLKMER: It has. It certainly has had a positive impact overall, but it's had a negative impact on a small subset of people that truly need it. It's done a great job of trying to prevent people who temporarily need those opioids only getting a five or maybe a 10-day supply as opposed to getting a 60-day supply. So they're being weaned off of those drugs before they develop the addictive habits. But for those sort of minority of people that do need it and will need it ongoing, it has created the burden upon them.
BRODIE: So in terms, though, of the people who actually need the pills and as you referenced earlier, there are certainly other manufacturers and other companies that are making these types of medications. Do you get the feeling that this settlement and what's happened to Purdue Pharma will sort of get those other companies into line and maybe recalibrate the industry a little bit to have them do what they're supposed to be doing?
VOLKMER: So by nature, I'm a sports fan. I love basketball. I played basketball in college. And there was something always — we talked about breaking the ice. We needed that first person to make a basket, particularly when you were struggling, because once that first bucket was made, the bucket looks huge, and then everybody starts scoring. That's what I'm hoping this is. I'm hoping this breaks the ice for us. This is going to bring other companies to the table. People are going to look at themselves in the mirror and realize that they need to settle. So my hope is that this is really the, the opening foray into getting a true resolution.
BRODIE: And in terms of, as you said, trying to get some money into Pinal County, you are clearly not the only jurisdiction that is suing either this company or another company to try to get some kind of damages relative to the opioid epidemic. When you have such a long line of, of litigants trying to get a piece of a finite amount of money, how do you try to make sure that you actually get something that is meaningful to your community?
VOLKMER: One of the things that I'm very proud of, and this is in the very early stages, but all of the county attorneys and the AG'soffice are beginning to work collectively to try and make Arizona whole as a, an entire state. And I think that gives us the best opportunity on which maybe we can gain more power. Because you're right, Pinal County compared to Maricopa County — we're only a tenth of the size. So we may be a small fish, but if we can join together and get resolution for Arizona residents as a whole, I think we have a lot more power. So that is something that — while nothing's set in stone — that is something that we are all discussing and trying to work together on.
BRODIE: All right. That is Kent Volkmer. He is the county attorney for Pinal County. Kent, thanks for your time. I appreciate it.
VOLKMER: I appreciate your time, Mark. Take care.