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McKinsey Apologizes For Helping Purdue Pharma 'Turbocharge' Opioid Sales

Drew Angerer
Getty Images

One of the world's most influential corporate consulting firms, McKinsey & Company, says it regrets efforts to boost sales of OxyContin and other highly addictive opioids.

The rare apology follows revelations in documents made public last month for the first time that showed McKinsey working closely with Purdue Pharma and members of the Sackler family who sat on Purdue's board.

As sales of high-risk opioids declined because of public health concerns, McKinsey developed a series of proposals, outlined in memos and planning documents reviewed by NPR, designed to "turbocharge" profits once again.

"We recognize that we did not adequately acknowledge the epidemic unfolding in our communities or the terrible impact of opioid misuse," said the firm in a statement posted on its website.

One of McKinsey's proposals, outlined in a planning document but apparently never implemented, involved making secret payments to insurance companies up to $14,000 whenever a patient became addicted or overdosed in an "event" linked to Purdue's opioids.

The document was made public in November by attorneys representing states suing Purdue Pharma.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 230,000 Americans died from prescription opioid-related overdoses alone during the addiction crisis.

In one internal email sent in July 2018, a McKinsey executive appears to acknowledge the growing legal risk faced by Purdue Pharma over its opioid business.

"It probably makes sense to have a quick conversation with the risk committee to see if we should be doing anything other that [sic] eliminating all our documents and emails," McKinsey senior partner Martin Elling wrote in an email sent to another executive at the company. "As things get tougher here someone might turn to us."

The documents, released as part of a tsunami of civil lawsuits hitting Purdue Pharma, have sparked growing criticism of McKinsey, which also has large contracts with the federal government.

"McKinsey's abhorrent conduct also demands that Congress consider broader action," said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., in a letter to the company last week. "No firm that proposes paying kickbacks for overdose deaths should receive a single cent from U.S. taxpayers."

Hawley also wrote that the 2018 email exchange about "eliminating" documents "raises the prospect that McKinsey may also have engaged in obstruction of justice."

In a statement posted Sunday on its website, McKinsey said its work with Purdue Pharma was "designed to support the legal prescription and use of opioids for patients with legitimate medical needs."

But the firm added that its decision-making "fell short" of the company's ethical standards and failed to "take into account the broader context and implication" of its work to boost Purdue's opioid sales.

"We have been undertaking a full review of the work in question, including into the 2018 email exchange which referenced potential deletion of documents," McKinsey's statement said.

Purdue Pharma entered bankruptcy last year. Members of the Sackler family have proposed giving up control of the firm and paying $3 billion out of their personal fortunes to settle all claims against them.

More than two dozen state attorneys general have rejected that proposal, in part because of new revelations in internal documents suggesting the Sacklers played a more direct role in decision-making.

Memos, emails and other planning documents show much of McKinsey's work involved direct consultation with Sacklers who sat on the company's board of directors.

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform has scheduled a hearing next week on Purdue Pharma and five members of the Sackler family who sat on the company's board to investigate their role in the opioid crisis.

Committee chair Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., has requested members of the Sackler family and current corporate executives from Purdue Pharma testify. The session is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Dec. 15.

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Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.