A plutocratic clan that has labored to portray itself as enlightened patrons of the arts, science, and medicine, instead has been depicted in new court documents as drug profiteers, eager to exploit the misery and even deaths of tens of thousands of Americans.
The stories in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and at the online medical science news site Stat paint a damning picture of the Sackler family and their avarice with the family-owned Big Pharma firm Purdue. The company made the clan billions of dollars but also has become the focus of news stories, official investigations, and now a barrage of lawsuits, all asserting that Purdue played a crucial role in fomenting the nation’s opioid drug crisis.
The Sacklers had sought to distance themselves from the horrors unleashed by powerful opioid painkillers, including their company’s top-selling drug OxyContin. The opioid crisis last year alone claimed 70,000 lives, and the prescription and illicit painkillers of their ilk have become a leading cause of death for Americans younger than 50. Overdoses now savage white men, especially in ex-urban and rural areas; women 30 and older; blacks in big cities; and even children.
The family has assailed Massachusetts officials for releasing “cherry picked” revelations from hundreds of pages of information produced as part of a state lawsuit against Purdue and the Sacklers themselves, blaming them for the opioid toll in the Bay State.
The disclosed emails and other documents, however, may be hard to refute — and they deepen the growing pall on the family’s reputation.
Demanding a ‘blizzard of prescriptions’
In 1996, for example, when Purdue launched OxyContin, Dr. Richard Sackler, a clan member and Purdue executive, prodded the pharmaceutical firm’s staff to be relentless in selling what falsely was claimed to be a safer, non-addictive painkiller. He said the drug’s promotion should be epic, with sales people pushing doctors and hospitals for “a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition.” He urged Purdue staff to push doctors to prescribe maximum OxyContin doses because they produced the highest profits for the company.
Later, when it became clear that OxyContin and other opioids were creating a tide of addiction, overdoses and fatalities, his reply was to blame the very patients targeted by Purdue and other opioid makers. The Sacklers didn’t hurry to make their drug less easy to grind up, snort, and ingest (which they eventually did under federal pressure). They didn’t halt their extensive advertising and promotional spending, notably to get doctors to prescribe the drug like candy to Americans who already were in pain and suffering from debilitation and injury, often in poor, rural communities.
Instead, the family strategy, as articulated by Richard Sackler in a 1991 email, was for the firm to use its extensive contacts and resources to “hammer on the [OxyContin] abusers in every way possible. They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”
Other emails undercut family claims that their philanthropy in the arts, science, and medicine so occupied the Sacklers that they knew little of what was occurring at or with Purdue and had left management of their firm to others. Instead, documents show internal complaints and pleas from sales and marketing staffers for executives to keep family members from micromanaging Purdue and getting in the way of the already aggressive hype for OxyContin.
It’s understandable why the family, contrary to its claims, would zero in on Purdue business: OxyContin became a best-seller, throwing off billions of dollars for the firm — and for the family. They kept the company private and its business hidden from public view. But their wealth has been estimated in excess of $13 billion.
Gifts with benefits?
As the New Yorker magazine reported earlier, the family sees itself as an American dynasty, funding the wing of the Metropolitan Museum in New York that houses the Egyptian Temple of Dendur. Their other public giving has included: “the Sackler Gallery, in Washington (a famous exhibit, shown above); the Sackler Museum, at Harvard; the Sackler Center for Arts Education, at the Guggenheim; the Sackler Wing at the Louvre; and Sackler institutes and facilities at Columbia, Oxford, and a dozen other universities.” The magazine noted that the family also has “endowed professorships and underwritten medical research.”
But Andrew Joseph reported for Stat that court documents also have cast deep shade on the Sackler scientific and medical donations. They now look more like hooks and snares to entangle universities and hospitals in the opioid crisis. Fresh questions and professional and ethical opprobrium now envelop Tufts and Massachusetts General, for example, for cozying up withPurdue: Did the institutions get enmeshed in conflicts of interests that might even make them look like they ignored patient injury to be Big Pharma sales and marketing collaborators?
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the wreckage that can be inflicted on them, their lives, and their loved ones by dangerous drugs.
The opioid crisis not only worsens by the day but its harms are widening and deepening, too: Researchers suspect the drugs may be linked to a ghastly birth defect, with infants born with a hole in their abdominal wall so their intestines hang outside their bodies. Big Pharma, irresponsible doctors, venal hospitals, insurers, and many others in health care should be ashamed of themselves for abetting the carnage of the opioid epidemic, and they should step and do much more to try to reverse the toll. This would include crackdowns on Big Pharma peddling practices, including frequent sales visits and payments of all sorts — corruptive cash that researchers are associating with higher opioid deaths in specific areas. Regulators and lawmakers also must act with greater urgency and commitment.
Other Billionaires’ health care havoc
All the rest of us not only need to hold accountable those in the medical establishment to clean up the opioid catastrophe, it’s also past time to end what has become another Gilded Age. Yes, it’s an accomplishment to amass a fortune. But that doesn’t necessarily make tycoons smarter or worthier than the rest of us — and we can stop falling over ourselves to fawn over them.
The New York Times, separately, reported how the generous — and rapacious — Charles and David Koch have campaigned to privatize billions of dollars in health care services for the nation’s veterans and their loved ones in what would be “the biggest transformation of the veterans’ medical system in a generation.”
The pros and cons for this action need more and careful consideration. They aren’t simple. The billionaire brothers’ hammering on the VA may be: As extreme conservatives, they oppose the government taking any roles in anyone’s health care. They don’t seem to care that veterans’ health services are part of an abiding commitment by the nation to its fighting forces for their sacrifices. They also ignore facts on how a large and separate VA system benefits its patients with sound care — and keeps the rest of the medical system from getting overwhelmed, argues accomplished journalist Suzanne Gordon in her new book, Wounds of War: How the VA Delivers Health, Healing, and Hope to the Nation’s Veterans.
Of course, veterans’ health care also has been imperiled, according to other investigative reports, by crass cronyism by President Trump, who has allowed a trio of wealthy Mar-a-Lago pals to take over as shadow operators of the VA — or at least to act as they’re the agency’s unappointed, unconfirmed, and illegitimate leadership.
Isn’t there a costume ball, horse show, or yacht parade that we can get these oligarchs ensconced in — and out of our health care?