Purdue Pharma Unloads Sales Staff, Transitioning From Painkiller Focus

Purdue Pharma LP, the company that made OxyContin a household name, has canned its sales staff.

According to Robert Josephson, a spokesman for the privately held Stamford, Conn.-based company, it laid off a total of 350 employees. About half of them were charged with selling the company's products, which include the painkillers, sleep medications, laxatives as well as antiseptics and dietary supplements.

The personnel cuts mean that Purdue no longer has sales staff interacting with doctors regarding prescription medicines.

The company still has 550 employees. It was incorporated in 1991 and at one time had 1700 employees.

Purdue made some changes in February, letting half of its sales force go and saying that it planned to stop promoting its opioid-based medicines. It discontinued its program of having sales staff call on physicians across the country to push the painkillers for sale. The move represented a significant departure from the company culture which included aggressively marketing the painkillers that Purdue has become synonymous with.

Likewise, Purdue's approach to selling its products set a standard in the industry for assertive sales. The company was a leader in producing conferences at resorts as a way to put doctors next to their drugs and sales staff outside the staid environment of a clinic. Purdue also pioneered the training of speakers on behalf of the painkillers as doctors were recruited and trained to speak to other healthcare professionals about the opioid medications. Academic studies showed that the conferences were an effective tool for the company to boost its sales.

Josephson said that the OxyContin speaker program was halted at the end of 2016.

The company also developed a reputation for generously rewarding its sales staff for its sales achievements for opioids, by paying out millions in bonuses.

Purdue has been under fire in recent years for its role in the opioid crisis. The company received approval for OxyContin in 1995, and the drug was originally prescribed as a painkiller for cancer patients and those suffering with intense ongoing pain. But the patient population grew to include those suffering from less severe pain as well of those with non-chronic conditions, in part because of Purdue's aggressive sales and marketing practices.

The company has been named in hundreds of lawsuits brought by states, counties, cities and Native American tribes alleging that it created a national healthcare crisis via its marketing of its opioid painkillers which are largely addictive. A federal court in Cleveland is consolidating the lawsuits.

The Trump administration has come under fire for failing to make a dent in the crisis and in February announced a federal task force that would examine how drug makers were contributing to the crisis. 

The company has defended itself over the allegations, saying its drugs are approved by the Food and Drug Administration and that the company is only responsible for 2% of the opioid sales on a national basis.

It has been sued over opioids before, settling with the state of West Virginia in 2004 for $10 million. In 2007 the company settled with the federal government for misleading the public about the danger of opioid addiction, paying out $600 million. In 2015, the company paid $24 million to settle a lawsuit with the state of Kentucky.

The Centers for Disease Control say that 42,000 people died in the U.S. as result of opioids and those numbers include Oxy, heroin and Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid.

For its part, the company has denied that it bears responsibility for the opioid emergency. It has spent a lot of time and money attempting to shift its image to that of an advocate for solving the crisis. At the end of 2017 it took out advertisements in major newspapers stating its support for federal opioid prescription guidelines and promoted its work to lessen the crisis including developing painkillers that are more difficult to tamper with.

The company is transitioning, according to Josephson. "Going forward, primarily through emphasis on internal and partnered research and development programs, the company will be pursuing new medications and unmet need for patients suffering from Cancer and select central nervous system disorders. As a consequence of these plans and as the most recent change new management has made over the last year, a number of positions at the company have been eliminated. While the development of important new medicines will be the company's priority going forward, we will continue to support our opioid analgesic product portfolio while keeping our commitment to take meaningful steps to reduce opioid abuse and addiction, including research and development of non-opioid analgesic pain treatments."

Josephson did not respond to questions regarding the savings the company would have because of the sales force dismissal as well as what the company expected to spend on research and development. There was also no information on how much pink slipping the sales staff would cost the company.

While Purdue has a powerful brand, the overhang of the hundreds of lawsuits as well its closely held status may not present a very appetizing opportunity for a larger pharma company to acquire the company.

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