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This week, a judge in Oklahoma ordered pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million for its role in the opioid crisis that has ravaged the country and killed more than 6,000 people in Oklahoma alone. The ruling is the first to hold a drug manufacturer responsible for the crisis, which was fueled by companies flooding the market with addictive painkillers and pushing doctors to overprescribe the drugs. The amount is far less than the $17.5 billion that the state’s attorney general sought, and the company says it plans to appeal the ruling.
Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman ruled that the state met its burden in arguing that the company created a “temporary public nuisance” by using “misleading marketing and promotion of opioids,” and added in his ruling that “those actions annoyed, injured or endangered the comfort, repose, health or safety of Oklahomans.”
Judge Balkman cited Johnson & Johnson’s deceptive and aggressive marketing of painkillers to doctors, and the company’s practice of discouraging its sales representatives from discussing addiction or other negative consequences of using the drugs, while encouraging their prescription for both moderate and severe pain. The company also sought to convince doctors that they were under-prescribing pain medications and that having patients ask for higher doses was not a sign of addiction, just indicative of needing more to address their pain.
Johnson & Johnson markets the painkillers Duragesic (fentanyl) and Nucynta, both of which contain opioids. The company has also long manufactured the raw ingredients for other companies’ opioid-based painkillers, having bought a company in Tasmania in the 1980s that grows poppies and processed opium. According to the New York Times, by the height of the opioid epidemic, the company had become “the leading supplier for the ingredients in painkillers in the United States,” having developed a specific strain of poppy that provided the basis for Purdue’s Oxycontin, as well as manufacturing and supplying ingredients for “a range of other drugs, including hydrocodone, morphine, codeine and buprenorphine.”
Michael Ullmann, Johnson & Johnson’s general counsel, released a statement calling the judgement “a misapplication of public nuisance law that has already been rejected by judges in other states.” He also noted, “The unprecedented award for the state’s ‘abatement plan’ has sweeping ramifications for many industries and bears no relation to the company’s medicine or conduct.”
The amount decided for damages may actually seem low—$572 million will reportedly only fund a single year of Oklahoma’s opioid recovery plan, which the state estimates will cost $12.7 billion to $17.5 billion over 20 to 30 years. The company’s stock even rose this week, which some attribute to relief over the relatively low damages.
However, many are cheering the Oklahoma ruling as other lawsuits near their court dates. This includes a massive federal lawsuit scheduled for October in Cleveland, Ohio, that brings together more than 2,000 separate cases. Judge Balkman’s decision that the company’s activities constituted a public nuisance opens the door for similar rulings in other state cases, and an additional legal avenue for holding companies responsible for their part in the epidemic.
Also this week, Oxycontin manufacturer Purdue Pharma pledged to pay $10 billion to $12 billion to settle thousands opioid-related claims, according to NBC News. Purdue had been part of the Oklahoma suit, but to avoid the lawsuit, Purdue agreed in March to pay a $270 million settlement to establish an addiction treatment and research center at Oklahoma State University, and provide continued funding over five years. Purdue’s owners the Sackler family also agreed to pay $75 million to the center for five years. In May, Israel-based Teva Pharmaceuticals also settled with Oklahoma for $85 million, which will further fund the state’s effort to combat opioid addiction.
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As part of our series of profiles of insurance professionals, we interviewed Darla Finchum, Head of MetLife Auto & Home. She is responsible for growth and management of the company’s personal and small commercial lines, as well as transforming the business to meet the needs of today’s technology-focused consumers. Finchum is also an active member of MetLife’s U.S. Business Diversity & Inclusion Task Force.
I.I.I.: Please tell us a little about your professional background. How did you end up working in insurance and what has your career trajectory been like at MetLife?
Darla Finchum: I’ve spent my career in personal insurance in the property and casualty industry. I started right out of college in the claims organization of an insurance carrier. Claims is where we put people’s lives back together in some of the most devastating moments. I developed a passion for what insurance does for people and for society. It is such a noble profession.
Once I knew that I had a passion and intellectual curiosity for insurance and what the industry stood for, I sought out roles and opportunities in various parts of the insurance business—from underwriting to sales to operations to services. I really began to understand the customer, the back end and front end, the business operations, and why it’s important for us to be a partner in the lifetime of our customers.
I came to MetLife Auto & Home through an acquisition in 2000 and have held various leadership roles including chief claims officer, prior to my current role as head of the business. It’s a real privilege to lead MetLife Auto & Home, drive our business growth and ultimately be there for our customers.
In your early career, has there been a mentor or boss who particularly encouraged and inspired you? If so, is there anything they said or did that you still draw on in your role as leader?
DF: I have been fortunate to meet, connect, and build mentor relationships with many individuals in both my professional and personal lives. My network and group of trusted advisors include former bosses, colleagues both inside and outside my organization, as well as individuals I’ve connected with outside of work, people I have met in life. I believe it’s essential to have a network you can call on, who will tell you what you need to hear and be there in pivotal moments to help in making those big decisions.
Most organizations agree that a diverse workforce is a good thing. Sometimes overshadowed by discussions about diversity is the topic of inclusion. One HR consultant described diversity as the “who” and inclusion as the “how”. How is MetLife promoting inclusion?
DF: MetLife has developed initiatives designed to strengthen an inclusive work environment. Designed in collaboration with human resources partners, business leaders, and external resources, the initiatives focus on three pillars: Attraction, Development/Advancement, and Retention. We define inclusion as a commitment to recognizing and appreciating the variety of characteristics that make individuals unique in an atmosphere that promotes and celebrates individual and collective achievement aligned to our values. We promote a culture where we respect others and listen for both facts and feelings to show respect for others’ perspectives. We focus on commonalities and value differences by identifying areas of agreement and shared goals.
Diversity, inclusion, and associate engagement are top priorities for me as a leader. Our Enterprise Local Inclusion Action Teams and Americas U.S. Diversity Task Force are two programs I’m involved in to promote and create inclusion across MetLife. Understanding employee values not only supports and helps them to thrive; it also has a positive impact on the business. Being involved in these enterprise teams gives me the opportunity to implement best practices across the broader organization, starting at the top with my senior leadership team.
How does MetLife go about recruiting employees from non-insurance backgrounds?
DF: It’s important for businesses to have look outside their industry to not only hire people with great experience but also individuals with intellectual curiosity, an ownership mindset, and who are willing to challenge the status quo, take risks, and experiment. MetLife leverages our recruitment marketing platform to promote jobs on our career site and various diverse job boards. In addition to job boards, our recruitment teams leverage several tools and channels to meet prospective candidates where they are and promote our employer brand, such as social media, Glassdoor, Indeed, job fairs, AI tools, community-based organizations, and employee referrals. MetLife is focused on targeting candidates who align with our core behaviors and values from a variety of industries.
What steps is MetLife taking/has taken to build a consumer-centric culture?
DF: Today’s consumers are aware of what’s possible and expect to engage with businesses on their own terms and in their preferred channels. At MetLife Auto & Home, we are focused on putting the customer at the center of our business to ensure we are delivering products and coverage our customers need, as well as quality service and experience they want.
We provide a personalized experience in which our customers can engage with us whenever, wherever, and however they chose. Whether that’s over the phone, through our website and apps, or in-person, we are a trusted advisor ensuring we provide the right types of guidance and advice to our customers.
In today’s world of emerging technologies, it’s important to have a balance of leveraging the latest technology like artificial intelligence, aerial imagery, and drones with the human connection. While digitalization and speed are core to today’s customer experience, the human connection is important in insurance. Immediately after an auto accident a customer may want to speak with a person at their carrier to verbally explain what happen, ask questions, and receive reassurance the claim will be handled. Once the initial claim has been submitted, a customer may choose to only receive updates via email and/or the app as they have the confidence in us that the claim will be properly handled.
And finally – What are you passionate about outside of work?
DF: While I’m passionate about insurance and my career, I’m just as (if not more!) passionate about my family – I strive for work-life balance. Whether it’s watching my grandson play baseball, a girl’s trip with my daughters or our annual family vacations, spending time with my family is a top priority and joy of my life. The balance of work and life is something I encourage for all our associates to make a priority. I remind them they can have it all, but they can’t do it all, so surround yourself with people who will help you along the way.
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