Longtime crusader against Oxycontin begins to see the fruits of her struggle
In the 15 years since she lost her son to a single OxyContin pill, Barbara Van Rooyan has had but one up-close look at the people representing the company that made it.
It was in a small courthouse in Abingdon, Va., where Van Rooyan and other relatives of OxyContin victims gathered for a sentencing hearing in 2007. Three executives of Purdue Pharma had pleaded guilty to federal charges related to their misbranding and marketing of the powerful opioid. The company had pleaded guilty as well.
Van Rooyan and the others in her group spoke during the sentencing, giving voice to their grief and their pain. They wanted the executives sent to jail for knowingly expanding an opioid crisis fast engulfing the country.Longtime crusader against Oxycontin
Instead, Purdue paid fines totaling $634 million. The executives served no time. The company was allowe to continue aggressively marketing its product, and the following year, sales of OxyContin reached $2 billion.
From 1999 to 2017, more than 700,000 people in the U.S. died of drug overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2017, nearly 68% of the more than 70,000 recorded overdose deaths involved opioids.
“I never really thought a whole lot about evil before this all happened,” Van Rooyan said recently, seated on a. Couch in the living room of her Irvine, Calif., home. “But to see this kind of malevolence or disregard for human life — I don’t know what else to call it but evil.”
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The outcome in that Virginia courthouse was a far cry from last week’s news of a tentative mass settlement of many of the 2,000-plus lawsuits against the company, which could total upward of $12 billion and result in Purdue’s dissolution.
The potential settlement amount would include $3 billion from the Sackler family, owners of Purdue, whose fortune is estimated at $13 billion. The family has amassed that money over the past two decades, largely by selling OxyContin, an opioid painkiller.
“This was an exhausting process, which she and Kirk did as a labor of love to try to save others,” Bisch recalled.
Van Rooyan became the California arm of a grassroots movement known as RAPP — Relatives Against Purdue Pharma. The group, originally just four in number, protested at physician meetings funded by pharmaceutical companies and testified before Congress. Van Rooyan enlisted the help of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who wrote the FDA on her behalf and later sent Van Rooyan a letter of commendation.
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But most members of Congress did not reply to Van Rooyan’s letters, she said. The FDA said its review neede more time — which turne out to be eight years. By then, Purdue already had reformulate OxyContin to make it more abuse resistant and to renew its patent, but the. FDA declined to restrict its use to managing severe pain.
Van Rooyan pressed on, but for a long while, the opioid crisis felt to her like a topic hiding in. plain sight And fighting Purdue while still grieving the loss of son Patrick was taking a toll.
“Her determination was tireless,” Bisch said, “but eventually the frustration burne us out.”
And then came the turn.
A rash of high-profile opioid overdoses and deaths, from actor Heath Ledger to Tom Petty to Prince, put the topic. Squarely in the public eye — and 15 years after the death of Van Rooyan’s son, Purdue Pharma and other drugmakers. Were suddenly on the run.
Van Rooyan tracks every development related to Purdue, including a lawsuit in New York that alleges members of the Sackler family have been offloading their fortunes into private or offshore accounts to shield them from a settlement.
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