As Purdue Pharma Bankruptcy Nears Approval, Family Members Write About The Human Toll The Purdue Pharma bankruptcy process has focused on financial compensation to creditors, but court records include heartrending personal letters from families ravaged by Oxycontin.

As Purdue Pharma Bankruptcy Nears Approval, Family Members Write About The Human Toll

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NOEL KING, HOST:

A federal judge in New York will hear closing arguments today in the bankruptcy of Purdue Pharma. The plan is that members of the Sackler family, who own the company, will get immunity from opioid-related lawsuits. Now, a lot of people are not happy about this. NPR's addiction correspondent Brian Mann found that the court record includes deeply personal letters written by people who say Purdue Pharma painkillers destroyed their families. Here's Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Big federal bankruptcy cases like this one are often Byzantine and secretive, with lawyers wrangling over details that seem bloodless and bureaucratic, which is why documents like this one stand out.

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KEOLA KEKUEWA: Aloha, the honorable Judge Drain. Under my claim number...

MANN: Keola Kekuewa, who lives in Honolulu, reads from a letter he sent to the court and presiding Judge Robert Drain describing his own desperate struggle with addiction. Kekuewa says OxyContin flooded his community 20 years ago and wrecked his life.

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KEKUEWA: I had an awesome job. I was in love. It was beautiful, and I was a beautiful person.

MANN: These are the kinds of stories that don't play any formal role in a bankruptcy proceeding, but the judge in this case allowed the letters to be included as part of the public record, offering a window on the human cost of the opioid crisis.

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KEKUEWA: It ended up into needles and accidental overdose, purposeful suicide attempts. I mean, it opened up this dark, horrible world that I didn't know existed.

MANN: In his letter. Kekuewa asks for more than $2 million in compensation from Purdue Pharma. He's likely to receive far less if this deal is finalized - likely around $3,500. Kekuewa says he supports some elements of this bankruptcy plan, but he doesn't think it does enough to punish the company's owners, members of the Sackler family who pushed OxyContin sales.

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KEKUEWA: They lied and said that it's not addicting.

MANN: The Sacklers say they did nothing wrong, though their company, Purdue Pharma, admitted misleading doctors and the public about the risks of OxyContin addiction. There are dozens of letters like Kekuewa's included in the court docket, some handwritten, many voicing confusion and anger over the bankruptcy process.

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JOANNE PETERSON: I lost count over 15 years on how many funerals I've attended. And then I had to plan one myself for my niece. And we buried her.

MANN: Joanne Peterson reads from her letter to the court. Peterson, who lives in Massachusetts, says she became an opioid activist after her niece and her son both became addicted to OxyContin.

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PETERSON: Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family need to be held accountable. Millions of families are longing for justice. And we bury people as they live lavish lifestyles.

MANN: This is a common theme in the letters. Many people don't believe the Sacklers are being punished enough. Under the plan now being finalized, members of the family would give up ownership of their bankrupt company. They would also pay roughly $4.2 billion in installments spread over the next decade. In return, the Sacklers would gain immunity from opioid lawsuits for themselves and their remaining businesses. They would also retain most of their wealth, estimated at roughly $11 billion, and they would admit no wrongdoing.

LEONA NUSS: Here they want to get away with all this again. And they started this mess.

MANN: Leona Nuss lives in Virginia. She says her son Randall overdosed on OxyContin in 2003.

NUSS: We got a phone call. When I heard the word OxyContin, I just could not believe it. We were at a shopping center - or I was outside the shopping center, screaming my head off.

MANN: In her handwritten letter to the bankruptcy court, Nuss pointed out Purdue Pharma admitted to federal crimes related to opioid sales, first in 2007 and again last year. But the Sacklers themselves have never been charged, and family members say they had no knowledge of any criminal activity or unethical behavior. Nuss told NPR she wrote two letters to the bankruptcy court but refused to submit a formal claim for damages.

NUSS: You know, how could I put a price on my son's life? I just couldn't do it. We just want the transparency. And we'd like to see them be punished. To see them get away with this and to watch them and just hold up their heads so high - like, no remorse, no nothing.

MANN: Again, members of the Sackler family have said repeatedly they did nothing wrong. And it's important to note many legal experts interviewed by NPR believe this bankruptcy deal could do real good. Under the plan, billions of dollars would go to fund drug rehab and other health programs designed to reduce addiction and overdose deaths. But critics say bankruptcy court was never the proper venue for this case. Alexis Pleus, an opioid activist in Upstate New York, also wrote a letter to the judge.

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ALEXIS PLEUS: This is not the justice that we were looking for. It doesn't address the victims. It never did address the victims. And we just want that to be our final record.

MANN: Pleus' son Jeff died from an opioid overdose seven years ago. She and other activists plan to be at the courthouse in White Plains, N.Y., for today's hearing. They hope to hand-deliver one more letter to the judge, objecting to the terms of this bankruptcy settlement.

Brian Mann, NPR News.

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