A new legal front is opening in the war against the nation’s opioid crisis as attorneys begin to pursue major corporations that distribute prescription painkillers. They are seeking billions of dollars in reimbursements for the devastation the drugs have caused in communities across the country.
Attorneys in West Virginia, which has the highest opioid overdose rate in the nation, filed lawsuits in federal court Thursday on behalf of two counties and targeting some of the nation’s largest drug distribution companies. A dozen attorneys general in hard-hit states are considering similar suits against many of the same companies.
There were a record 378 drug overdose deaths reported in Maine last year, most attributed to heroin and fentanyl.
“The purpose of these lawsuits is to make the economic cost of willfully violating the law so significant that we force the wholesalers to abide by the law,” said Paul Farrell Jr., who filed the lawsuits in West Virginia and plans to file lawsuits on behalf of five other counties in the state next week.
The lawsuits are among the first of their kind in the country. They accuse the companies of creating a hazard to public health and safety by shipping inordinate quantities of opioids into the state in violation of a West Virginia law.
The lawsuits name McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen – which distribute 85 percent of the nation’s drugs. Also named are Walgreens, CVS and others.
“The unlawful conduct by the defendant wholesale distributors is purposeful and intentional,” the suit says.
John Parker, a spokesman for the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, a trade association that represents the drug distributors, said in a statement that “prescription drug abuse is a complex problem and each component of the supply chain shares the responsibility for controlling the availability of opioid pain medications.”
“This epidemic must be addressed through a multifaceted, collaborative approach that includes the doctors who write the prescriptions, the pharmacists who dispense the drugs, the distributors who deliver the medicines, the manufacturers who make and promote the products, and the federal and state regulators who license and regulate these entities and determine supply.”
A spokeswoman for AmerisourceBergen said in a statement that the company “has been and remains committed to the safe and appropriate delivery of controlled substances.”
The lawsuits come as counties and states grapple with the economic impact of a prescription-opioid epidemic that has resulted in nearly 180,000 overdose deaths since 2000 and led to tens of thousands more deaths from overdoses of heroin and fentanyl as the crisis has evolved.
The epidemic has taken a financial toll on hospital emergency rooms, jails and law enforcement agencies. It has also undermined the stability of families in the hardest-hit communities.
The death toll from overdoses of prescription painkillers has more than tripled in the past decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 40 people die each day in the United States from overdoses of drugs, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.
A dozen attorneys general in states stricken by the epidemic are considering filing lawsuits against the distribution companies, according to attorneys Serena Hallowell and Michael P. Canty, a former federal prosecutor who handled prescription diversion cases for the Justice Department. They said the attorneys general are planning to seek damages from the distributors for the economic impact the drugs have had on their states.
Under federal law, drug distribution companies are required to report suspicious orders of narcotics to the Drug Enforcement Administration, including orders of unusually large size, orders that deviate from a normal pattern and orders of unusual frequency.