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Story By John Murray

Waterbury is on the front edge of tackling the opioid crisis in the courtroom, and on the streets.

Four years ago, the City of Waterbury was the first municipality in Connecticut to file a class-action lawsuit against Big Pharma for incentivizing the distribution of oxycontin with false marketing claims. The city’s bold legal move in 2018 was led by Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary and is now supported by 30 towns and cities. The lawsuit eventually was merged with other regional lawsuits around the state and combined into a lawsuit against Big Pharma by the Attorney General of Connecticut William Tong.

Waterbury filed a lawsuit against Big Pharma in August 2017. Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary and more than a dozen elected officials made the announcement in Waterbury City Hall.

Every town and city in Connecticut (except Salem) is now involved in the litigation against the pharmaceutical companies, and when the lawsuits (there are several different ones) are settled, there will be hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to address the opioid devastation in the state. A lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson was settled in July 2021 for $26 billion to be paid out over 18 years. Connecticut will receive $300 million from the Johnson & Johnson agreement, and there is more money to come with future settlements, particularly with Purdue Pharma that pled guilty in federal court in the Autumn of 2020 to fraud and kickback conspiracies.

After Purdue pled guilty, Rachael A. Honig, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey said, “Purdue admitted that it marketed and sold its dangerous opioid products to healthcare providers, even though it had reason to believe those providers were diverting them to abusers. The company lied to the Drug Enforcement Administration about steps it had taken to prevent such diversion, fraudulently increasing the amount of its products it was permitted to sell. Purdue also paid kickbacks to providers to encourage them to prescribe even more of its products.”

Purdue Pharma is based in Stamford, Connecticut, and the Waterbury lawsuit was cutting edge in 2017.

“We’re proud that we were the first to file lawsuits against the big pharmaceutical companies,” O’Leary said. “We are starting to see some of these lawsuits come to fruition in settlements and agreements, which is going to funnel that money back into the state of Connecticut for treatment and abatement and education programs.”

Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary landed the first blow against Big Pharma in Connecticut, and is now the chairman of the Special Committee on Opioids Settlement at the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (providing guidance on how to disperse $300 million in a recent Johnson & Johnson settlement). Photograph by John Murray

Waterbury and the 30 towns and cities that joined forces to file the initial lawsuit are still being represented by Attorney Jim Hartley of Middlebury, and CT Attorney General William Tong is representing the State of Connecticut and the allocation of settlement dollars. Mayor O’Leary is the chairman of the Opioid Allocation Committee at the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (which represents every city and town in the state).

“As the chairman of that committee I work hand in hand with Attorney General Tong,” O’Leary said. “He has been great to work with. Tong has taken the lead in Connecticut, and he has taken the lead in working with various attorney generals around the country.”

When Purdue Pharma (the original manufacturer of oxycontin) offered $4.6 billion to settle claims around the country, some states quickly agreed. Tong dug his heels in and said the money being offered was not enough. Purdue Pharma was owned by the Sackler family, and they had spent years concealing assets through bankruptcy.

Tong vehemently opposed a Bankruptcy Court decision that required the Sackler family to pay $4.3 billion over nine years to help abate the opioid crisis they fueled. Tong said the Sackler family, which made tens of billions of dollars of profits from Oxycontin, were not being personally impacted. The Sackler family is worth multiple times more than the proposed settlement, and some experts estimated that by the time the settlement was paid off the Sacklers would be wealthier than when they started.

Connecticut, California, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington appealed the controversial Bankruptcy Court decision that sought to extinguish Connecticut’s claims against both Purdue and the non-bankrupt Sackler family.

Mayor O’Leary said Tong’s aggressive push back against the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy deal led to a national spotlight on Connecticut’s Attorney General. “He’s a pit bull,” O’Leary said. “Tong got very aggressive at the state attorney general’s meeting talking about the settlements and the terms and conditions of the settlements. So, all the states smartly got together and asked Tong to lead the pack. He’s a fighter.”

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong

In December 2021 a U.S. District Court overturned the Sackler bankruptcy decision that had granted lifetime legal immunity to the Sackler family.

CT Attorney General Tong issued a statement last month calling the decision, “a seismic victory for justice and accountability that will re-open the deeply flawed Purdue bankruptcy and force the Sackler family to confront the pain and devastation they have caused.”

In his statement Tong said the fight against the flawed bankruptcy decision, “was about holding Purdue and the Sacklers accountable for the lives stolen and destroyed by their relentless greed. That is why Connecticut helped lead the charge against the plan, and why we will continue to push for true justice and accountability in any appeals or new bankruptcy proceedings.”

Members of the Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma. Photo from Smillow Hospital.

While Tong leads a renewed fight against Purdue Pharma, the state is wrestling with the final details of the Johnson & Johnson settlement. One of the key components of the settlement revolved around how many of the 169 towns in Connecticut signed onboard with the agreement by a January 2nd, 2022, deadline.

“The biggest battle we had, it sounds crazy, but it’s true, was to get all 169 cities and towns to sign on to this opioid allocation agreement,” Mayor O’Leary said. “It wasn’t easy, but we did do that.”

The % of the $300 million allocated to Connecticut was going to be determined by the amount of participation of the state’s cities and towns. If less than 95% of the communities signed onboard the settlement agreement, the payout would be $75 million less.

“We had some pushback initially from some small rural towns that said they didn’t have an opioid issue and didn’t need the money,” O’Leary said. “I told them they might not know they have an opioid issue, but they do. We had to get them onboard so we could get the entire $300 million. I didn’t want anything less. “

The Big Pharma settlements are being compared to the Big Tobacco settlements of the 1990s when attorney generals around the country sued the tobacco industry and won more than $100 billion. Many critics of the settlements complain the money has made its way into state coffers and did not address issues of tobacco.

“The tobacco money was hijacked,” O’Leary said, “but with the Johnson & Johnson settlement at least 50% has to go to cities and towns, and we can make an argument for more.”

O’Leary said once the money comes in the governor and the legislature will decide how it’s distributed, but an advisory committee made up of state leaders and local town leaders will weigh in on what is fair. O’Leary said Attorney Jim Hartley has done an excellent job representing Waterbury and the 30 towns he represents.

Attorney James Hartley is representing Waterbury and 30 towns in the legal proceedings.

“Jim Hartley and his son, Devin Hartley, have made sure that the cities and towns had a voice at the table during every step of the negotiations,” O’Leary said. “Whatever Waterbury gets, whatever the formula is, it’ll be fair.”

Launching a regional opioid abatement program, creating educational programs in the public schools, treatment centers and counseling services are all possible uses of the money heading to Waterbury.

“I would guess that Waterbury will probably be the regional hub for different variations of treatment – methadone, Suboxone – counseling, and treatment centers,” O’Leary said, “but it’s a work in progress. It’s good to listen to everybody and when we get done with this, there won’t be a kid in Connecticut that doesn’t understand how dangerous opioids are.” •