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West Virginia Gets $47 Million Settlement from Suing Prescription Drug Wholesalers – Money to be Used to Help Fight the Addiction the Wholesalers Helped Create

West Virginia has the highest number of drug overdoses in the U.S.  The deaths from prescription drugs go right along with that: Between 2007 and 2012, the number of deaths in WV caused by prescription opioids – which are, basically, painkillers – was also higher than in any other state. But WV is not taking it lying down. They’re going after what may be some of the most dangerous dealers in the State – the drugs’ legal wholesalers and distributors. What did they do that was so bad? And how will getting them under control help you or someone you care about who is addicted to drugs?

Drug companies, and their associate companies (marketers, for example), usually get sued for fraud and illegal marketing – things like lying to doctors and the public about the effectiveness of their drugs, and the dangers. Or, they promote using the drugs in ways that have not been approved by the FDA – like giving drugs to children when they have only been tested on and approved for adults. Or giving OxyContin to people with mild to moderate pain (or for depression or anxiety) when all it had been tested and approved for was end-of-life cancer patients who had tried everything else for pain relief and it just wasn’t working. It’s okay for doctors to give people drugs that haven’t been tested or approved for other conditions, but it’s not okay for a drug company to suggest they do that. That’s illegal.

Billions and billions of dollars in fines have been paid by drug companies for violating these and other laws.

But this time, the allegations are very different. The State charged a dozen drug wholesalers and distributors with not reporting the unusually high numbers of drugs they were shipping into the State, as the overdose death rate skyrocketed.

The WV rule states that any drug activity “of unusual size, orders deviating substantially from a normal pattern, and orders of unusual frequency” must be reported to the Pharmacy Board, which is then supposed to report it to law enforcement. From 2001 to 2011, there were two reports to the Pharmacy Board, both from Cardinal Health.

To give you an idea of how many reports may have been justified during those years, there were 7200 reports received in the few years after the lawsuit was filed.

So there was a BIG problem going on, and of course it was noticed. But not only were the incidents not being reported the way they should have been, no one at the Pharmacy Board acted on those they did receive.

How all of that happened is a very long story and it involves a long list of people and agencies – I’ll leave that for another blog. But to summarize what was going on that got the blind eye:

Cardinal Health and AmeriSourceBergen, the largest and third largest (respectively) wholesalers and distributors of prescription drugs to the state of West Virginia, along with 10 other wholesalers and distributors, shipped 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills over a period of six years.

Where these pills were going was outrageous and there is no doubt the details would have raised anyone’s suspicion. For example (from the WV Gazette Mail) (http://www.wvgazettemail.com/news-health/20161217/drug-firms-poured-780m-painkillers-into-wv-amid-rise-of-overdoses):

  • “Thetrail of painkillers leads to West Virginia’s southern coalfields, to places like Kermit, population 392. There, out-of-state drug companies shipped nearly 9 million highly addictive — and potentially lethal — hydrocodone pills over two years to a single pharmacy in the Mingo County town. Rural and poor, Mingo County has the fourth-highest prescription opioid death rate of any county in the United States.”
  • The shipments of OxyContin to Wyoming County doubled in that period of time, and the county’s overdose rate is higher than anywhere in the U.S.
  • “One mom-and-pop pharmacy in Oceana received 600 times as many oxycodone pills as the Rite Aid drugstore just eight blocks away.”

As a result of this voluntary blindness, the State sued all 12 companies.  It took four and a half years to get this lawsuit wrapped up, but the settlements total $47 million. Cardinal Health, the largest supplier of the drugs in WV, and AmerisourceBergen, the third largest, are ordered to pay a total of $36 million by March 1, 2017. Cardinal’s paying $20 million of that and AmerisourceBergen the remaining $16 million. The balance of $11 million is coming from the other companies.

As usual, no one’s going to prison even though thousands of people have died. Also, these monies are considered settlements, not fines, and both Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen have it written into the settlement agreement that they do not admit to any wrong doing.

But there’s good news! In addition to those situations now being on the State’s radar, most of that $47 million will be going into a trust to enable the State to continue its considerable addiction prevention and drug rehab initiatives, and get some new ones started.

It’s unbelievable that all of that could have been missed and, I have to say, it would be appropriate if whoever had that going on right under their nose and did NOTHING as the State turned into a combat zone spend a little time making up the damage – like learning how to get people off drugs and spending their next ten years devoted to that activity – sounds more useful than going to jail for ten years where nothing will get accomplished.

But at least there is a positive outcome – not the least of which is the reporting system now being utilized – and more people will get helped. $47 million can help a lot of people. So if you or someone you care about needs help with drug addiction, call the governor’s office. They may have something to offer you.

It’s also good that, whatever the reason this remained hidden for so long, someone in the State government has finally discovered this treasonous activity and is doing something aggressive to handle it.  But, still, I can’t help but hope that the individuals responsible for this will somehow, sometime, get their just desserts.

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