Court of Appeals OKs release of court records that could reveal more about how company promoted OxyContin, opioid epidemic

Purdue Pharma is privately held. (AP photo by Douglas Healey)

The state Court of Appeals on Friday upheld a Pike County judge’s ruling to release secret records about the marketing of OxyContin, the branded form of oxycodone that “has been blamed for helping to seed today’s opioid addiction epidemic,” reports Stat, the medicine-and-science publication of The Boston Globe, which fought to get the records.

In the court file is a deposition of Richard Sackler, a former president of Purdue Pharma, the family-controlled company that makes OxyContin and pleaded guilty in federal court to fraudulently marketing of as less addictive than other painkillers.

The deposition “is believed to be the only time a member of the Sackler family has been questioned under oath about the marketing of OxyContin and the addictive properties,” Stat’s David Armstrong and Andrew Joseph report. “Other records include marketing strategies and internal emails about them; documents concerning internal analyses of clinical trials; settlement communications from an earlier criminal case regarding the marketing of OxyContin; and information regarding how sales representatives marketed the drug.”

The Pike County case was a lawsuit filed in 2007 by then-Attorney General Greg Stumbo, alleging similar fraud and increased costs to the state for drug treatment and health care. It was transferred to federal court, where it lingered for several years under then-AG Jack Conway, who got it transferred back to Pike Circuit Judge Steven Combs. Depositions were taken, and in December 2015, as one of his last official acts, Conway settled the case and agreed to destroy 17 million pages of documents he had obtained through discovery.
However, some copies of the documents remained on file in Pike County, and Stat asked for them. in May 2016, Combs ordered them released, but stayed the order pending Purdue’s appeal. He wrote, “The court sees no higher value than the public (via the media) having access to these discovery materials so that the public can see the facts for themselves.”
Jack Conway

Almost a year and a half after oral arguments in the case, the three-judge panel of the appeals court unanimously agreed, saying it was the only way to hold Conway accountable for his actions. Without naming Conway, Judge Glenn Acree wrote, “Some agent of the government compromised the claim against Purdue; i.e.,some agent sold the people’s property. . . . Without access to court records, how can the public assess whether a government employee’s decision to compromise a valuable claim of the people adequately protected their interest or maximized the claim’s value?”

Conway told the Louisville Courier Journal Friday, “Kentucky got many times over what any state has gotten from Purdue Pharma. After eight and a half years, I thought it was best to get what we could. I hope it all comes out, (that) all of the documents eventually get released, and sooner rather than later.”

Purdue has 30 days to appeal. It indicated that it would, either to the state Supreme Court or through a rehearing by the appeals court. Either could refuse to allow further action.

“It’s taken a long time, but we’re now very optimistic that these records will see the light of day very soon,” Stat Managing Editor Gideon Gil, a former health reporter and regional editor for the Courier Journal, told Kentucky Health News.

Louisville lawyer Jon Fleischaker, who represented Stat, told the publication, “Really what the court is saying is these are public records. The public has an interest in them, and the public has a right to them.”

Stat Editor Rick Berke said, “More than two years after we filed this suit, the scourge of opioid addiction has grown worse, and the questions have grown about Purdue’s practices in marketing OxyContin. It is vital that that we all learn as much as possible about the culpability of Purdue, and the consequences of the company’s decisions on the health of Americans.”

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