The woman who refused her share of a $6 billion settlement to fight the family behind the opioid crisis | Opioid crisis


A Cottage outside Floyd, Va., is a quiet backdrop for Ellen Isaacs to fight one of the opioid epidemic’s longest wars: the battle to compel OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, its landlords and its leaders to account.

It’s a battle Isaacs, a former mortgage fraud expert at Citigroup, has been fighting since she and her son Ryan became addicted to OxyContin, the ‘non-addictive’ painkiller from Purdue Pharma that has played a pivotal role. in an epidemic that claimed the lives of 500,000 people. two decades.

Isaacs is one of only two people to oppose a controversial bankruptcy settlement that would effectively protect Purdue’s former owners, the Sackler family, from further litigation. “I’m a truth seeker on a fact-finding mission,” she says clearly under her cowboy hat.

But she is also a grieving mother. Her son died of an overdose four years ago, aged 32, and she now travels with boxes of Narcan, the opioid overdose treatment that could have saved Ryan had he been administered earlier.

“Ryan did not choose to live his life this way,” she wrote in a recent legal submission to a New York court, describing the devastation caused by opioid addiction as a national mental health crisis. . “The Sacklers poisoned my son’s mind…and used their marketing team and doctors to administer synthetic heroin to my son.”

At the end of this month, that court – the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York – will hear arguments regarding individual liability waivers approved by a bankruptcy court responsible for distributing Purdue Pharma’s assets. Those releases, another court found in December, were not authorized by law and the plan was overturned.

But under the terms of the now-cancelled deal, the Sacker family would contribute $6 billion over 18 years to an opioid settlement trust. It’s a situation that angers Isaacs, and thousands of others, who believe that some corporate responsibility may have been assigned, but Purdue’s decision maker will never be held accountable.

Ellen Isaacs, left, at a protest outside the Justice Department. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP

“I want to spend my day in court,” Isaacs said in a small, direct voice. “Purdue and the Sacklers caused genocide; they have armed the medicine cabinets of the United States.

If the ruling that overturned the bankruptcy settlement is overturned and the deal reinstated in bankruptcy court, the mother-turned-activist plans to take her case to the Supreme Court. If confirmed, members of the Sackler family, facing legal exposure, would likely do the same.

“I’m going to overthrow the court,” she warns. “This company has earned billions of dollars – the blood money of our children. And I represent all those who have been injured.

Isaacs’ campaign goes far. She wrote to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth asking that British-born Dame Theresa Sackler be stripped of her title. “I tried to strike a chord with the queen, but I don’t know if she got the letter,” she said. “The Sacklers’ ownership and prestige got them to where they are and that needs to stop.”

The legal blizzard that follows the opioid epidemic from federal to state, from civil to criminal (attorneys billed nearly $1 billion in legal fees in the Purdue case alone) has left many families and communities among the most affected feel marginalized again. Isaacs, in the court brief, wrote that the Sacklers had “been the puppeteers at the helm of the NYSD bankruptcy court for nearly two and a half years.”

“This must stop and the government must intervene. I’m sick of hearing about Purdue money. Money is not going to make a dent in the crisis that is unfolding,” says Isaacs. “The Sacklers must be charged. No posh prison, no TVs, no specials on Bernie Madoff, Martha Stewart. Put an ankle monitor on them and put them out in the community to help clean up the mess.

On the issue of immunity, the Justice Department is theoretically on Isaacs’ side. In December, Attorney General Merrick Garland said “the bankruptcy court had no power to deprive the victims of the opioid crisis of their right to sue the Sackler family.”

From licensing authorities and manufacturers to distributors, doctors and pharmacies, there is no shortage of responsibility in the face of the crisis. Many parties have already settled out of court, often for billions of dollars.

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A family photo of Isaacs’ sons. Photograph: Mark Trent/The Guardian

But only Massachusetts and a few other states have passed laws specifically directing opioid colonies toward addiction prevention and treatment. “States will divert funds for salaries and administrative costs, and will not help alleviate the opioid crisis,” Isaacs fears. “They proved it with asbestos and heavy tobacco. All they do is bicker with each other.

Meanwhile, a flood of illicit fentanyl from Mexico and China is responsible for the majority of the 105,000 overdose deaths recorded last year, a sharp increase from years when OxyContin was the main source of misery during the opioid epidemic.

Isaacs was put on OxyContin several times after surgery in the late 90s. His son Ryan had a similar experience. Living in Florida, they found themselves at the center of the pill-dispensing era in the early 2000s.

For years he did the “Florida Shuffle” – a term used to describe the opportunistic schemes of unscrupulous treatment centers in Palm Beach County to continuously bill insurance companies for cycles of detox, discharge, relapse and readmission of clients.

At the center of every story is addiction. Isaacs herself spent four months in rehab in 2001. It wasn’t her first or last rehab. She ended up managing it herself, at home, using 120mg of OxyContin prescribed by her doctor. “I knew crazy things were happening because the doctors kept putting me in and I had to keep pulling out.”

But her son switched from OxyContin to Dilaudid to the oxycodone of the pill mills. When the pill factories were closed, he switched to heroin. And back to OxyContin. And on fentanyl. “Addiction destroys everything,” Isaacs says, noting his own family’s entanglement and dysfunction. “Before, people thought that ostracizing and isolating people, throwing them to the curb, was a solution. Let them fend for themselves. This is not the case. Love and inclusion is the answer.

It is perhaps a message which begins to pass. US health authorities, including the Biden administration, have emphasized MAT – medically assisted treatment – ​​which involves long-term treatment with buprenorphine rather than abstinence-based regimens.

Women sitting on the steps of the house
Ellen Isaacs at her home in Floyd, Virginia. Photograph: Mark Trent/The Guardian

There are 20 doctors prescribing buprenorphine within a few miles of Isaac’s home. Dilapidated clinics are appearing like pillboxes used to be. “They’re handing it out like they used to hand out Oxy,” Isaacs says, “and it’s hugely abusive.”

Isaacs’ experience in detecting mortgage fraud, applied to her experience in dealing with the opioid problem, led her to one conclusion: a radical institutional reorganization. The states that signed the settlement, she says, were not only ignoring the will of the people, but duplicating themselves.

“The whole system is fraudulent,” she says. “We need total justice reform – civil, bankruptcy, criminal, juvenile. But the government is up there on Capitol Hill playing games and watching it all happen. The only thing they are able to do is approve national holidays.

One solution, she suggests, is for the government to declare a national emergency, take over abandoned malls to turn them into recovery homes or communes that would help get drug addicts off the streets, as well as make fentanyl test strips and safe injection sites. readily available.

But the protracted battles over Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family – important in terms of establishing some measure of accountability and responsibility – are a side issue compared to the scale of the problem that has been unleashed. “The regulations are not going to cut it. What is $6 billion going to do? Nothing. The president must put in place an executive order to put the National Guard and Fema on the ground,” she said. “He needs to get out there and start saving lives.”


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