Marion County sues drug companies over opioid crisis

MARION, SC (WBTW) – Marion County filed a federal lawsuit last Friday against three of the biggest drug distributors in the United States.

The county blames the companies – Amerisourcebergen Drug Corporation, Cardinal Health 110, and McKesson Corporation – for “lethal overshipments” of prescription opioids and the resulting opioid epidemic. 

Marion County has more opioid prescriptions than people, according to data from the CDC.  The CDC estimated 127 opioid prescriptions per 100 people in Marion County in 2015. The rate improved to 115.6 in 2016. The national rate in the same year was 66.5.

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Recovering from addiction has been an uphill battle for Nathan Keller. But now two years sober he helps run the Owls Nest Recovery Center helping combat addition.

“The further you get away from it you actually have the ability to see how blinded you were,” said Keller.

For him, it all started with an accident that caused a shoulder injury.

“I had to have a surgery with six screws put in my arm,” said Keller. “They had to do some form of pain management.”

Keller believes several things contribute to opioid addiction like; insurance failing to cover alternative pain relievers, and doctors or pharmaceutical companies overprescribing pain medicine.

“The pharmaceutical companies have a shared responsibility with that, however, I don’t think we can ‘just’ blame them,” said Keller.

The companies, which ship drugs to retail pharmacies and other providers, were supposed to report suspicious drug orders to the DEA and stop some of the orders, but the companies didn’t, the lawsuit claims. Suspicious orders could include an order of an unusual size, abnormal pattern, or unusual frequency. 

“Certain red flags are so obvious that no one who engages in the legitimate distribution of controlled substances can reasonably claim ignorance of them,” the lawsuit says. 

In 2017, McKesson admitted to the DEA it didn’t identify or report orders that “should have been detected as suspicious.” The company agreed to a $150 million fine and promised to do better. It admitted to similar wrongdoing in 2008. 

60 Minutes aired an investigation into McKesson in late 2017. “DEA investigators discovered that McKesson was supplying pharmacies and doctors, that were fronts for criminal drug rings and pills were ending up on the black market,” the broadcast reported. 

“They had hundreds of thousands of suspicious orders they should have reported, and they didn't report any,” David Schiller, a former leader in the DEA, told 60 Minutes. “There's not a day that goes by in the pharmaceutical world, in the McKesson world, in the distribution world, where there's not something suspicious. It happens every day.”

The lawsuit doesn’t name specific suspicious orders in Marion County. 

The lawsuit asks for the companies to pay for the cost of the opioid epidemic – mostly public safety expenses like police and jail staff – and the cost to stop it. 

One of the attorneys working on behalf of Marion County has played a role in similar lawsuits. According to The Anniston Star, the city of Jacksonville, Alabama voted in December to join a "cross-jurisdictional" opioid lawsuit overseen by Annesley DeGaris, an attorney from Birmingham. 

Diane Goldbolt- Hall with Trinity Behavioral Health says the need for opioid help increased from 5%- to 50% in just 18 months.

“Now we are seeing an influx of opioid use,” said Goldbolt- Hall. “People are losing their lives. They are losing their livelihood. They are losing their families. This is really something serious.”

 The lawsuit asks the companies to pay for the cost of the opioid epidemic including first responder expenses and the cost to stop it. 

“I hope to see out of this is a recovery epidemic. Recovery is strong in SC there are solutions to this problem,” said Keller.

AmerisourceBergen provided this statement in response to the lawsuit:

AmerisourceBergen and other wholesale drug distributors are responsible for getting FDA-approved drugs from pharmaceutical manufacturers to DEA-registered pharmacies, based on prescriptions written by licensed doctors and health care providers. Our role in doing so is quite widespread across different therapies, with the distribution of opioid-based products constituting less than two percent of our sales.

 We are dedicated to doing our part as a distributor to mitigate the diversion of these drugs without interfering with clinical decisions made by doctors, who interact directly with patients and decide what treatments are most appropriate for their care. Beyond our reporting and immediate halting of tens of thousands of potentially suspicious orders, we refuse service to customers we deem as a diversion risk and provide daily reports to the DEA that detail the quantity, type, and the receiving pharmacy of every single order of these products that we distribute.

We are committed to collaborating with all stakeholders, including those in Marion County, on ways to combat opioid abuse.

CardinalHealth 110 provided this statement in response to the lawsuit:       

The people of Cardinal Healthcare deeply about the devastation opioid abuse has caused American families and communities and are committed to helping solve this complex national public health crisis. We are industry leaders in implementing state-of-the-art controls to combat the diversion of pain medications from legitimate uses, and have funded community education and prevention programs for a decade. We operate as part of a multi-faceted and highly regulated healthcare system – we do not promote or prescribe prescription medications to members of the public – and believe everyone in that chain, including us, must do their part, which is ultimately why we believe these copycat lawsuits filed against us are misguided, and do nothing to stem the crisis. We will defend ourselves vigorously in court and at the same time continue to work, alongside regulators, manufacturers, doctors, pharmacists and patients, to fight opioid abuse and addiction. 

John Parker  with Healthcare Distribution, a representative of Alliance McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen provided this statement in response to the lawsuit:

“as distributors, we understand the tragic impact the opioid epidemic has on communities across the country. we are deeply engaged in the issue and are taking our own steps to be part of the solution – but we aren’t willing to be scapegoats. 

“distributors are logistics companies that arrange for the safe and secure storage, transport, and delivery of medicines from manufacturers to pharmacies, hospitals, long-term care facilities, and others based on prescriptions from licensed physicians. we don’t make medicines, market medicines, prescribe medicines, or dispense them to consumers. 

“given our role, the idea that distributors are solely responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and how it is regulated.

“we are ready to have a serious conversation about solving a complex problem and are eager to work with political leaders and all stakeholders in finding forward-looking solutions.”


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