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On May 9th, Democratic and Republican lawmakers from the House Energy and Commerce Oversight subcommittee grilled pharmaceutical companies over their negligent oversight of opioid distribution in Appalachia. Past and current executives from five prominent pharmaceutical companies answered questions about pill dumping in West Virginia, the state with one of the highest amounts of opioid overdose deaths in 2016. The surrounding Appalachia region, including Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland are all well above the national average for overdose deaths in the nation. However alcohol rehab centers in Kentucky and the surrounding areas fight to do their part in ending drug addiction.
What Caused the Opioid Epidemic in This Region?
The Pharma execs admitted on Tuesday that today’s technology and better vigilance likely could have prevented the influx of opioids into several communities within West Virginia. The courtroom included executives, lawyers, staffers, and reporters, and is part of the larger class action being helmed in Cleveland against large industry players. The plaintiffs are alleging that pharma companies have irresponsibly dumped pills into the region, causing a huge drug crisis and ensuing financial calamity.
In Ohio, for example, the small area of Vinton County has seen overdose deaths surge, leaving foster care overwhelmed and the jails bursting at the seams. Regional representatives are attributing nearly 25% of their $4 million annual budget to the expenses related to caring for children of drug abusers and locking up offenders. Officials want Big Pharma to foot the bill.
In West Virginia, questions were primarily focused on responsibility. Did the pharmaceutical companies fall short of complying with federal regulations? Did they report suspicious orders? Were they fair in addressing the potential for abuse that opioids have? How are they going to ensure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again?
Cardinal Health Executive Chairman George Barrett expressed regret over the way that his company didn’t react swiftly enough in halting the distribution of oxycodone and hydrocodone pills. Millions of the pills were sent to pharmacies in West Virginia. Barrett stated:
With the benefit of hindsight, I wish we had moved faster and asked a different set of questions. I am deeply sorry we did not. Today, I am confident we would reach different conclusions about those two pharmacies.
Several other companies were less willing to bear the burden of responsibility, instead shifting blame on the doctors and dubious medical professionals who were overprescribing medications. They said that their companies were merely filling orders from pharmacies, and that opioid painkillers were only a small portion of their overall production line.
The executives were adamant that they had taken the precautionary steps to prevent the massive pill dumping that was allegedly taking place, and that levels of opioid distribution have gone down in recent years. Some of the safe measures they’ve implemented include planting algorithms in their system that automatically put halts on suspicious orders.
Opioid Epidemic Statistics
Representatives came armed to the teeth with some shocking statistics that highlight a clear negligence in overseeing distribution. For example:
- A single pharmacy in the 1,779-person area of Mount Gay-Shamrock, W.Va. received more than 16.5 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills between 2006 and 2016. That averages out to 927 pills per person, per year.
- During the same period, distributors sent 20.8 million opioids to the 2,900-person city of Williamson. That’s an average of 717 pills per person, per year.
- Over a two-year period, opioid distributors shipped 9 million pills to Kermit, whose population is 406. That’s more than 11,000 pills per resident each year.
Several pharmaceutical companies have already settled hefty fines with the Drug Enforcement Administration, including several companies present at the hearings.
- Cardinal Health was fined in 2016 to the tune of $44 million, settling over allegations that it had failed in upholding federal regulations for monitoring suspicious orders. In 2008, they paid a similar fine of $34 million for the exact same negligence.
- McKesson, another pharmaceutical behemoth, agreed back in January to pay $150 million in fines over accusations that it also neglected to report suspicious orders of narcotics. In 2008, the company paid $13 million for the same thing
Paul Hanley Jr., one of the leading lawyers in the plaintiff’s case against Big Pharma, believes that this lawsuit could be one of the most complex pieces of litigation in the history of the nation. It spreads across state lines and points the blame at some of the biggest industry players in the world. Hopefully, the verdict will end in the same kind of regulations that brought the tobacco industry to the heel of the FDA.
NATIVE TRIBES LEADING THE FIGHT AGAINST The Opioid Epidemic
Another particularly devastated demographic affected by the opioid epidemic is the nation’s native population. As the crisis ravages the nation, it has also crept into the remote tribal communities from Maine to Alaska. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Native Americans have experienced the highest rate of opioid-related fatalities in the world, dying at nearly twice the rate of African Americans and Latinos in the U.S. combined. Heroin overdoses increased 236% from 2010 to 2014.
In April of 2017, the Cherokee Nation filed a lawsuit in the tribal court against the pharmacies, manufacturers, and distributors . Since then, hundreds of other tribes and counties have followed suit, and many have joined in the growing litigation that is now bringing Big Pharma to the table for recompense.
One initiative to stem the tide of opioid abuse is Seneca Strong, a program spreading across tribal communities that aims to solve the crisis with support networks and traditional tribal healing practices such as talking circles and lacrosse.