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The maker of the painkiller OxyContin has filed for bankruptcy. Purdue Pharma faced a tsunami of lawsuits over its alleged role fueling the opioid epidemic. State and local governments are still suing roughly two dozen drug industry giants that make or sell opioids. But what about federal officials who saw sales of those drugs skyrocket years ago and failed to raise alarms? Some say they share blame for the addiction crisis, as North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: When Gerry Neugebauer (ph) was elected mayor of Green, Ohio - a suburban city near Akron - he had no idea what was coming at him.
GERARD NEUGEBAUER: I would have people come to my office - one woman who had lost three sons at three different times to opiate overdoses.
MANN: That was 2016. Tens of thousands of Americans were dying each year from opioid overdoses, many involving prescription medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration. As communities scrambled to understand what was happening, it turns out a lot of people in the federal government already knew exactly what drug companies were doing - selling billions of prescription opioids year after year, flooding small towns and urban neighborhoods with pills. Katherine Clark is a congresswoman from Massachusetts.
KATHERINE CLARK: We have systems in place in this country with the FDA, the DEA that are meant to protect the American people. And what has become abundantly clear is that, in the case of the opioid epidemic, these agencies have failed us.
MANN: This summer a federal court ordered the release of data collected by the Drug Enforcement Administration. It reveals that, as early as 2006, officials were tracking every opioid pill manufactured, distributed and then sold in pharmacies. As sales grew and overdose deaths surged, Clark says the DEA did little.
CLARK: Why were they ignoring the data they were collecting and allowing this opioid epidemic to wreak such havoc?
MANN: The DEA declined NPR's request for an interview about the opioid records it collected and the agency's response to that information. The federal government fought for months in court to keep this data secret. It was revealed only after The Washington Post and other news organizations sued. Scott Higham is a reporter for The Post who spoke on the NPR program Fresh Air.
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SCOTT HIGHAM: You know, they all fought furiously for secrecy over this data - the industry for obvious reasons and the DEA, I think, because it was embarrassing to the agency that they had all this information. And they made some use of it, but they didn't make a whole lot of use of it.
MANN: It wasn't just regulatory agencies. Critics say state and federal prosecutors also showed little interest in soaring prescription opioids sales. When prosecutors did file cases, they often reached settlements that included confidentiality provisions that hid the industry's role in the epidemic.
Phillip Thomas is an attorney in Mississippi who sued Purdue Pharma a decade ago. He says judges also allowed companies to conceal or destroy opioid-related documents that should have been made public.
PHILLIP THOMAS: It's become customary in lawsuits involving big corporate entities for those sorts of confidentiality orders to be entered, and judges are routinely granting requests for them. It's bad for the public. And it's bad for public safety.
MANN: In many of the opioid cases reviewed by NPR, information about industry wrongdoing wasn't even shared with government regulators, law enforcement or the medical community. After these secret settlements were reached, opioid sales often increased, and overdose deaths continued to rise.
The government's complicated role in this epidemic is now part of the drug industry's legal defense. Sabrina Strong, an attorney for Johnson & Johnson, says her company played by the rules. She spoke after a state opioid trial in Oklahoma last month.
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SABRINA STRONG: And the evidence at trial showed that the company manufactured and marketed those medicines in compliance with strict regulations by the FDA and the DEA.
MANN: Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay more than half a billion dollars in that case, but the company says it will appeal. The next big federal opioid trial gets underway next month in Ohio. The judge overseeing that case has argued that government agencies share some of the blame for the addiction crisis. In a hearing last year, Judge Dan Polster accused state and federal officials of punting on the opioid crisis, adding, quote, "everyone shares some responsibility."
Brian Mann, NPR News.
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