Pharmaceutical companies like Purdue Pharma made billions selling the painkiller OxyContin in the late 1990’s, but two decades later, they’re paying hundreds of millions to settle lawsuits for false advertising after telling doctors the medication wasn’t addictive.
Now, grieving parents who lost their teenage and young adult children to opioid overdoses through pills or heroin are demanding New York state put settlement money in the right places.
Linda Ventura complained that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget people diverted two-thirds of the money from the first, $32 million dollar settlement to a general fund.
“If you follow the money, he sent $21 million dollars to the Office of Alcohol and Substance abuse,” Ventura said. “Then, he withheld $21 million dollars from their budget.”
She said that budgetary move has serious consequences.
“That money has come on the backs of people still struggling,” Ventura added. “That money has come on the back of many New Yorkers’ deaths.”
Ventura lost her son, Thomas, to a fatal heroin overdose in 2012, when he was just 21. Thomas Ventura had been a star athlete at Kings Park High School and hoped to play lacrosse in college.
Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 90,000 American deaths from drug overdoses in 2020, the highest toll on record, with many experts blaming the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic for the disturbing numbers; a high percentage of the deaths were linked to opioids.
In New York, Attorney General Letitia James wrote in a recent op-ed that overdoses were up 40% in the state during the first eight months of 2020.
Avi Israel of Buffalo took out a full-page ad in one upstate newspaper urging Cuomo to put the opioid settlement money purely into treatment and prevention.
Israel has a torturous tale to tell.
His son, Michael, was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease — a painful inflammation of the intestines — when he was 13 years old. When Michael Israel was 18, he has his first surgery.
“And that’s when the pills started,” Avi Israel told PIX11 from Buffalo. “There were three different doctors that prescribed Michael Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, and Xanax.”
Within a year, Michael Israel confided to his father that he was addicted to the painkillers.
When he was 20, Michael spent three days in detox and then grew despondent when he couldn’t get help withdrawing from the addiction. He attempted suicide once in May 2011, but his family stopped him.
Then came June 4, 2011.
Avi Israel recalled that his son locked himself in a family bedroom.
“I kicked the door open; it was Michael,” the still-grieving dad said, putting his head down and catching his breath. Michael Israel had taken his own life. “I just held him and rubbed his face and said everything would be alright.”
This June will mark 10 years since Michael died.
“That’s when our fight started,” Avi Israel said.
Ventura and Israel are working closely with State Sen. Peter Harckham of the Hudson Valley to insist that future opioid settlement money goes directly to treatment and prevention.
“The whole point of these settlement funds is to supplement state funding, so we can better address the crisis,” Harckham said.
Harckham chairs the Committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse and wants to create a “lock box” for opioid settlement money. He made reference to costly, long-term treatment that most insurance doesn’t want to pay for.
“If we really want to prevent relapse,” Harckham said, “and help people along the path toward long-term recovery, it’s a lot more than 28 days.”
PIX11 asked Cuomo about the parents’ concerns during a COVID-19 briefing this week at Cuomo’s Third Avenue office in Manhattan.
“Settlement money in general always goes to the general fund,” the Governor noted. “Should all settlements always go to the ‘subject area’ of the settlements? I don’t think so,” he concluded.
Cuomo spoke about the need to prioritize budget items like education, child care, prisons, and tenant relief.
Last week, PIX11 asked Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the senior federal legislator from New York, about the opioid settlement money. Schumer was in Hicksville touting government money for mobile crisis intervention vans.
Schumer said he didn’t know all the details about the settlement funds going to the state treasury but said: “That’s very serious…I urge the families to call us and we’ll try to help them.”
Michael Israel does his advocacy through an organization named after his son called Save the Michaels of the World. He said longer-term treatment could possibly prevent relapse after relapse.
“There’s some people who need six months,” Israel insisted. “Nobody wants to pay for it.”
Israel recalled an insurance company that didn’t want to pay for his son’s treatment.
“That was the same insurance company that subsidized his pills,” Israel said. “That paid for every one of his pills.”
Linda Ventura founded Thomas’ Hope Foundation in her son’s name.
She and Israel want to make sure nearly a billion dollars coming to New York in future settlements go to the right place.
“We’re talking about an incredible amount of money in the next 10 years that can turn our system around to patient-centric treatment,” Ventura said.
Resources for getting help with opioid addiction are available. You can find links and phone numbers here — several of them are listed below:
Resources to Fight Opioid Addiction:
NYS Office of Alcoholism & Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) Hopeline
Partnership @ Drugfree
DRUG TREATMENT CENTER FINDER
An online, nationwide directory of addiction treatment, mental health, and general health services.
Toll-free 24 hour help hotline: (1-855-619-8070)
New Jersey Helpline