OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma has agreed to plead guilty to three criminal charges and pay $8 billion for its role in fueling the opioid epidemic, the U.S. Justice Department announced Wednesday.

The company has a long history in West Virginia. 

In the mid-1990s, Purdue deployed sales representatives across the state to pitch OxyContin to family doctors and rogue pain clinics. 

In 2001, West Virginia became the first state to sue Purdue. Then-Attorney General Darrell McGraw alleged that the company’s deceptive and coercive practices gave it an illegal monopoly in the pain medication market. Three years later, Purdue Pharma agreed to pay $10 million to settle the case.

In May 2019, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey filed the state’s second lawsuit against Purdue. In September of that year, Morrisey announced that West Virginia was among 27 states that had signed onto a preliminary settlement agreement with the opioid manufacturer. Days later, Purdue filed for bankruptcy protection and the proposed deal was never finalized. 

It was unclear Wednesday how Purdue’s settlement with the Justice Department will affect West Virginia’s lawsuit and those filed by other states. The company also is being sued by about 3,000 towns, cities and counties. Most of those cases have been consolidated and are being heard in federal court in Cleveland.

During Wednesday’s announcement, Justice Department officials said Purdue will shut down and re-open as a new “public benefit company” controlled by a trust for the “benefit of the American public.” The new company would continue to sell OxyContin, along with overdose-reversing drugs and medications used to treat people with opioid use disorder.  

Purdue faced allegations that it promoted OxyContin to doctors that it knew were prescribing opioids for non-medical reasons, and that the drugs were being abused and diverted to the black market.

“Purdue Pharma actively thwarted the United States’ efforts to ensure compliance and prevent diversion,” said Tim McDermott, an assistant administrator with the Drug Enforcement Administration. “The devastating ripple effect of Purdue’s actions left lives lost and others addicted.”

States like West Virginia, along with the thousands of counties, cities and towns that have also filed suits, are seeking money from Purdue as part of the bankruptcy proceedings.

Twenty-five state attorneys general — mostly Democrats — had opposed the Justice Department’s deal with Purdue Pharma after word leaked out about it last week. Many criticized the settlement Wednesday.

“DOJ failed,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. “Justice in this case requires exposing the truth and holding the perpetrators accountable, not rushing a settlement to beat an election. I am not done with Purdue and the Sacklers [the company’s founders], and I will never sell out the families who have been calling for justice for so long.”

As part of the plea deal, Purdue admitted it broke federal anti-kickback laws, misled the DEA and conspired with doctors to dispense OxyContin for no medical purpose.

Eric Eyre, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting in 2017 for stories on the opioid crisis, was formerly a senior investigative reporter at Mountain State Spotlight. He is the author...