- Associated Press - Friday, May 6, 2016

PIKEVILLE, Ky. (AP) - A Kentucky judge says he will decide next week whether to unseal the secret testimony from a former president of the company that markets the powerfully addictive painkiller OxyContin.

Statnews.com, a health news website owned by Boston Globe owner John W. Henry, wants a judge to unseal some of the 17 million pages of documents generated as part of Kentucky’s lawsuit against Purdue Pharma. Chief among them is an under oath deposition by Richard Sackler, a former company president who is a member of the family that controls the Connecticut-based company.

OxyContin is an opioid, making it similar to the illegal drug heroin. Kentucky sued Purdue Pharma in 2007, accusing the company of lying about the addictiveness of the drug so it could make billions of dollars as doctors overprescribed it. Kentucky said that resulted in a wave of addiction and increased medical costs across the state. Greg Stumbo, the former Attorney General who first filed the case, said it could have been worth as much as $1 billion if it ever got in front of a jury.

The case dragged on for years and resulted in both sides exchanging more than 17 million pages of documents, including marketing strategies, training manuals instructions to sales representatives and testimony from company officials. At the start of the case, the judge agreed to let Purdue Pharma label some documents as confidential, meaning they would be sealed and not released to the public.

Both sides settled the case in December and it never went to trial. Purdue Pharma did not acknowledge wrongdoing, but the company agreed to pay Kentucky $24 million. Purdue Pharma replaced the drug with a new version in 2010 that it says deters abuse.

After the case, the Attorney General’s office denied open records request from The Associated Press and Statnews.com seeking to release the documents. But some of the documents are still part of the court record. Jeremy Rogers, an attorney for Statnews.com, asked Pikeville Circuit Court Judge Steve Combs to release those documents on Friday.

“Pay no attention to the records behind the curtain. That’s Purdue’s argument here,” Rogers said. “What we are hearing today for the first time is essentially Purdue’s argument that we can settle and buy our way into secrecy.”

Purdue attorney Trevor Wells argued Sackler’s deposition and other sealed documents in the court record were never used as the basis for any of the court’s decisions since the case did not go to trial. He said the protective order sealing certain documents was essential to avoiding expensive delays in the case as Purdue Pharma willingly gave documents to the Attorney General’s Office because it knew they would never be released to the public.

Without agreements like that, Wells argued, Kentucky’s circuit court dockets would “grind to a screeching halt.”

“If the Globe’s position prevails, welcome to discovery bloodsport,” Wells said. “Every attorney in the state will have to advise his or her client you cannot ever safely drop your guard.”

A lawyer from the Attorney General’s Office said the state is not taking a position in the case.

Kentucky officials say the eastern portion of the state has been hit hard by opioid addiction as so many coal miners were prescribed the medication. In 2012, the state legislature expanded Kentucky’s prescription drug monitoring program that has been credited with reducing abuse.

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