British company Reckitt Benckiser has agreed to pay $1.4 billion to resolve all U.S. government investigations and claims in what is the biggest drug industry settlement to date stemming from the nation's deadly opioid epidemic.
In a statement Thursday, Reckitt Benckiser denied wrongdoing but said the settlement deal "avoids the costs, uncertainty and distraction associated with continued investigations, litigation and the potential for an indictment."
The company's former Indivior division, spun off in 2014, makes an opioid-addiction drug called Suboxone Film that dissolves under the tongue. In April, the Justice Department charged Indivior with felony fraud and conspiracy.
Federal prosecutors said that starting in 2010, Indivior falsely marketed its film as being safer and less prone to abuse than cheaper tablet forms, illegally earning billions of dollars in a "nationwide scheme" to bilk healthcare providers and insurers including Medicaid.
Indivior has denied the allegations. Prosecutors say the company should forfeit at least $3 billion in penalties if found guilty.
In announcing the Reckitt Benckiser settlement, the Justice Department noted that Suboxone is a medication designed to help people suffering from opioid dependency. "Drug manufacturers marketing products to help opioid addicts are expected to do so honestly and responsibly," said Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt.
Most of the $1.4 billion will go to various federal agencies, but $200 million will be divided up among states that sign on to the settlement deal, with the money going to reimburse their Medicaid budgets.
While the payout is noteworthy for its size, this has been a year of reckoning across the pharmaceutical industry. Insys Therapeutics, Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries have agreed to pay state and federal agencies a combined total of more than half a billion dollars to settle opioid-related claims.
In May, seven current and former Insys executives pleaded guilty to or were convicted of federal racketeering conspiracy charges tied to the marketing of opioid medications. That company later declared bankruptcy. Purdue Phama has talked openly about filing for Chapter 11.
Meanwhile, Johnson & Johnson is in court in Oklahoma, with that state's attorney general demanding $17 billion in compensation. That trial is expected to wrap up early next week.
Another big trial begins in October involving lawsuits filed against Big Pharma by more than 1,200 local governments around the U.S. That consolidated case will be heard by a federal court in Ohio.
This is the kind of opioid-related legal chaos Reckitt Benckiser hopes to avoid, but it may not be completely in the clear. One of the industry's big fears is that companies will make big payouts but face lingering liability.
Reckitt Benckiser is still facing lawsuits from dozens of state attorneys general. Some officials may choose to take part in this federal settlement, but others may keep fighting in court, pushing for separate opioid settlements.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports more than 200,000 people died from prescription opioid overdoses in the U.S. from 1999 to 2017. Advocates hope much of the settlement money will eventually go to help communities and individuals struggling with high rates of addiction and overdose deaths.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now the story of a family reunited. They're originally from Yemen, and the Trump administration's travel ban had separated the parents from the children. The mother and father were back in Djibouti while their children were here in the U.S. NPR's Leila Fadel saw them brought back together this week.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Ahlam Alsoufi drops to her knees in tears in baggage claim at the Detroit Metro Airport. She opened her arms, and her 3-year-old son, Muslim, rushes into them and hugs tight.
MUSLIM: (Speaking Arabic).
AHLAM ALSOUFI: (Speaking Arabic).
FADEL: Did you bring me a present, he asks his mom in Arabic. Her three other children wait to be enveloped in their parents' arms.
MOHAMED MOHSIN: (Speaking Arabic).
ALSOUFI: (Speaking Arabic).
FADEL: Ahlam's husband, Mohamed Mohsin, leans down to kiss his children. How are you, my loves, he says. It's been a long trip home.
MOHSIN: Two days, I didn't sleep. But wallah when I see them, I forget.
FADEL: Mohamed Mohsin is a Yemeni American truck driver. He was in the final stages of bringing his family to the United States when President Trump started blocking travel from several majority Muslim countries, including Yemen, which is still on that list today. His four children got their visas, his wife did not. They were waiting in Djibouti because the embassy in war-torn Yemen is closed.
And so he was faced with an impossible choice - leave his wife alone in a foreign country with no one or send his children, the oldest just 10 at the time, to the United States alone before their visas ran out. He sent the kids ahead. They stayed behind. That was over a year ago. Shortly after their story aired on NPR, the embassy in Djibouti emailed, and Mohsin's wife's visa was issued. This week, They arrived in Michigan.
MOHSIN: So happy, me and my wife - so happy. Believe me, I forget everything. You know, in Djibouti - you didn't know Djibouti - so hot, expensive, problem, plus no kids, plus ban. Almost crazy. But today, I'm so happy.
FADEL: His eldest daughter, Sara, now 12, stands nearby, first looking up at her dad in awe and then looking at her mother also in disbelief.
SARA: Yeah, so happy. I think this is not real.
FADEL: It's not real?
FADEL: It feels not real?
SARA: No, it's not real.
FADEL: The 12-year-old has been the de facto mom to her younger brothers. For months, her parents promised that the visa would be printed and they'd be together in a couple of weeks. But weeks would pass, and they wouldn't come. So when they're finally standing in front of her, she says it's hard to believe it's real.
SARA: This is my best day.
FADEL: Her mother, Ahlam Alsoufi, pulls Sara into her lap and hugs her. She tells her how proud she is of her.
ALSOUFI: (Speaking Arabic).
FADEL: These were the hardest days I've lived in my life, especially when my kids left, Alsoufi says. She holds her daughter tight. They're together now. The kids are different, bigger, especially the youngest. They pull six suitcases from baggage claim and set out to restart life in the United States together.
But the future, Mohamed Mohsin says, will be difficult. He's tens of thousands of dollars in debt. He hasn't worked in nearly two years, when he first set out to bring his family from Yemen. His house is gone. He sold his car, his truck - all to support his family.
MOHSIN: I'm looking for any job, any job because I have to take care of them. I have to cover my loan. I have a lot of problems.
FADEL: But today, he won't think about all those problems. Today, he says, he knows he's one of the lucky ones. Scores of other families are still divided by the travel ban. Today, he'll enjoy his children. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.