Accusations leveled at one of the world’s premier businesses consultancies, McKinsey & Co., for its role in manipulating the market for prescription opioids sound a lot like the inner-workings of big tobacco as it tried to expand the market for its cancerous products no matter how hopelessly addicted its customers were.

A settlement announced this past week between the consulting company and 47 state attorneys general, as well as other documents filed in the case, reveal damning details of how McKinsey abetted the wildfire spread of opioid addiction by working on behalf of OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma. It did so, the Washington Post notes, even as it also worked with nonprofit groups and local governments searching desperately for ways to slow down the deadly scourge of addiction that for many people began at the doctor’s office.

The $573.9 million agreement with McKinsey is a significant step in holding accountable the institutions and executives who’ve profited as people across the country fell deeper into addiction, families were torn apart, and far too many lives were lost to overdose. The agreement, in which McKinsey does not admit having done anything wrong, also suggests the process of overturning those stones is far from finished.

Attorney General Maura Healey said in a press release Thursday the settlement “sets a new standard for accountability in one of the most devastating crises of our time. As a result, our communities will receive substantial resources for treatment, prevention and recovery services, and families who have seen their loved ones hurt and killed by the opioid epidemic will have the truth exposed about McKinsey’s illegal and dangerous partnership with Purdue Pharma.”

Working for the pharmaceutical company over the course of a decade, the New York-based consultants encouraged ways to “turbocharge” OxyContin sales, according to the lawsuit filed against McKinsey in Massachusetts. Its consultants researched drug sales, went on sales calls with Purdue representatives and monitored the company’s sales results. They recommended ways to convince doctors to prescribe more opioids and suggested ways to target patients new to the use of opioid painkillers.

They also encouraged Purdue Pharma to look for ways to cut through the clutter of the health care bureaucracy by delivering OxyContin directly to end users, “to circumvent retail pharmacy restrictions on high-dose, suspicious prescriptions,” Healey’s press release states.

Then, as states began investigating the consulting company and launched legal action, top executives sought to cover their tracks by destroying documents and emails related to the project. McKinsey says it has since fired the two executives behind that cover-up.

The legal settlement forces the company to turn over “tens of thousands of internal documents” disclosing the details of its work with Purdue Pharma and other prescription opioid makers, whom it also encouraged to get together to lobby federal regulators against tighter limits on the distribution of their products. The company has also agreed to ethics rules and to no longer consult for companies selling potent narcotics.

As major as this developments is, and as much as it reflects well upon Healey and the work of her office, it is unsatisfying. This sleazy chapter revealing one company’s role as accomplice in encouraging America’s opioid addiction is part of a much larger story that involves many others.

The biggest culprit, Purdue Pharma, agreed to an $8.3 billion settlement last year with the Justice Department for its work marketing and distributing the painkiller OxyContin. However, it was mostly a symbolic victory since the company has since filed for bankruptcy and is unlikely to ever make good on that payment. Healey has also criticized that agreement as not being aggressive enough in holding members of the Sackler family who owned and controlled Purdue Pharma to account.

In the meantime, an epidemic rages on. During the first nine months of 2020, Massachusetts tallied 1,517 opioid-related overdoses and deaths, according to the latest data from the state Department of Public Health. That was slightly higher than during the same period in 2019 and not far off the mark of the most deadly year of the epidemic in the state, which was 2016.

The settlement against McKinsey and Co. and ongoing efforts to hold Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers accountable are encouraging. But by themselves they have not abated the crisis that continues to rage in our communities.


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