AG Donovan says new bankruptcy plan for opioid maker will help Vermonters
Last week, the Vermont Attorney General’s Office announced that a bankruptcy settlement with opioid maker Purdue Pharma cleared another legal hurdle.
The plan would give the Sackler family — the owners and founders of the company — legal protection from future civil lawsuits over Purdue’s role in creating the opioid epidemic. In exchange, the Sackler family would pay up to $6 billion nationwide.
The development comes after Vermont recorded the most opioid overdose deaths in the state’s history last year, even though officials haven’t yet released data from December.
Vermont could receive up to nearly $38 million under the Purdue agreement. That’s up from a roughly $12.5 million payout from an earlier Purdue bankruptcy settlement that Vermont and several other states appealed late last year.
VPR's Grace Benninghoff spoke with Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan about recent developments in the case. Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Grace Benninghoff: This agreement is a roughly threefold increase from the initial Purdue bankruptcy settlement that your office rejected in December. Are you satisfied with the new settlement?
Attorney General TJ Donovan: Grace, I don't think there's going to ever be enough money to repair the damage that the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma brought to the state of Vermont, and thousands of Vermonters and families who suffered from addiction. I remember back in 2012, somebody asked me what the most important issue in the state of Vermont was. And without hesitation, I said, "Prescription drugs, Oxycontin." And very quickly after oxys came through Vermont, we went into a full-blown heroin crisis. And we're still dealing with it 10 years later. So there's never going to be enough money.
But to have that threefold increase at a time when our overdose deaths are up, when people continue to struggle with addiction, when people are still coming out of this terrible pandemic, these last two years — we need resources. We need money. And we need to help Vermonters. That's why I think this was the right decision to enter into this agreement.
Throughout this process, you've been adamant that you want the Sackler family held to account for its role in the opioid crisis. Although the payout for the settlement is larger, the family isn't admitting to any wrongdoing. What has changed for you to accept this settlement?
In addition to the money, there's a couple other injunctive terms. Number one, transparency is incredibly important here, where people need to know the full story about what happened. And as part of this deal, thousands upon thousands of documents will have to go into a public repository.
Naming rights were able to make sure that institutions such as the [Metropolitan Museum of Art] and others that want to take down the Sackler name, because of those charitable donations, that they can't object to that.
And perhaps most importantly, and incredibly moving, was we made sure that victims and survivors had the right to speak in court for the first time. That happened, I think, a week or two ago; it was reported in the media. Incredibly, incredibly powerful, incredibly painful.
So this issue of accountability — I think a higher power is going to sit in judgment at the end of the day. For me, my job is to help Vermonters. People who are struggling with addiction need help. And that's why I think that this agreement was the right one to enter into.
In that vein, where will Vermont's share of money from the settlement actually go? And what will it be used for?
"It can't just be about profit and greed — there has to be corporate responsibility. There has to be a change in the way that these companies operate."
The money has to go to abatement. Which means to address the crisis, there is an advisory board being created right now by the Legislature. And there's different stakeholders that will be on that board: municipal officials, people from the Department of Health. But perhaps most importantly to me, is you're going to have people from the treatment and recovery community. That money needs to go back to local communities, and whatever works — anything that you can think of — that will go to address this crisis. That goes to treatment. That goes to recovery. That also goes to prevention. We have to invest in prevention so the next generation never gets started.
And so I'm really excited if we go through this board process — and we truly engage and endorse it in an open-minded process where we listen to people about what's worked for them to get sober, what helped them get into recovery. Because it is really, truly a unique experience where you get to meet people where they're at. I know, from being in the courtroom, I can tell you no jail cell or term of probation ever, ever got anybody sober.
So we really need to listen to people. We need to be creative. We need to be open-minded. We need to be innovative, but it's got to be local. And it's got to be driven by people in the community who have lived experience with those professionals, and treatment, and recovery and investing in prevention, as I said, for the next generation.
The Purdue plan is actually one of three settlements dating back to last year between the state of Vermont and opioid-related companies. Are we seeing a national shift in how these companies are being held accountable for their involvement in the painkiller industry?
You had those settlements with Cardinal and McKesson and McKinsey — these are major corporations. And I think what these settlements represent is an accounting, that we are going to hold corporate America accountable when they engage in these behaviors, and in this conduct, that is unfair, that's deceptive, that hurts Vermonters and other Americans. And it can't just be about profit and greed — there has to be corporate responsibility. There has to be a change in the way that these companies operate. And it really is about doing no harm to people. And I think that this was a reckoning with the Sackler family and corporate America.
So I certainly do hope that these business practices change. If they don't, we're always going to stand up and do what's right and protect Vermonters.