Thursday, September 14, 2017

Counties sue painkiller distributors, giving them part of the blame for the opioid epidemic that is costing taxpayers

At least 19 Kentucky counties are suing wholesale distributors of pain-killing drugs, alleging that they have contributed to the state's opioid epidemic, and a lawyer says more lawsuits are coming.

The lawsuits claim AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp.Cardinal Health Inc. and McKesson Corp. “unlawfully sold millions of prescription opioids,” leading to "diversion of the drugs to the black market and creating a public health and safety crisis" that has cost the counties millions of dollars, the Lexington Herald-Leader reports.

“It’s just close to breaking down the system,” Middlesboro attorney Mike Bowling, who is helping coordinate the suits, told the newspaper. He "said it’s likely that 90 or more of the state’s 120 counties will eventually file," the paper reports.

The counties that had filed by Sept. 13 were Anderson, Bell, Boyle, Carlisle, Franklin, Fleming, Garrard, Harlan, Henry, Knox, Leslie, Lincoln, Madison, Nicholas, Pendleton, Shelby, Spencer, Union and Whitley.

"AmerisourceBergen operates distribution centers in Louisville and, until recently, in Paducah, according to the lawsuits. Cardinal Health. has distribution operations through a Radcliff call center, and McKesson operates a distribution center in Louisville," the Herald-Leader reports. "An executive with the the trade association for pharmaceutical distributors, which includes the three companies as members (among others), said the allegations in the federal lawsuits are misplaced."

“As distributors, we understand the tragic impact the opioid epidemic has on communities across the country,” said John Parker, senior vice president of the Healthcare Distribution Alliance. “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. 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.”

The Herald-Leader notes that McKesson, in a civil case filed by the U.S. Justice Department, "agreed earlier this year to pay a $150 million penalty to the federal government for alleged violations of federal drug law."

Bowling said a consortium of law firms is handling the lawsuits and paying the costs of the litigation, so it won’t cost counties anything, Bowling told the newspaper. "If the counties are able to prove the drug distributors are liable and win damages, 70 percent of the money would go to counties and 30 percent to the firms, Bowling said."

Similar suits have been filed by state and local governments against drug makers, distributors and pharmacy chains.

Parker, the industry spokesman, said “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.”

University of Kentucky law professor Richard Ausness, who teaches product-liability litigation, "said the companies have a statutory duty to monitor the distribution of the painkillers," the Herald-Leader reports. “I think the counties can make a strong case that distributors had a duty to do a better job than they did, and this breach of duty caused this harm to them, to the counties,” he told th newspaper.

In June, a federal appeals court upheld the Drug Enforcement Agency’s "authority to take prescription drug companies to task for failing to investigate, stop and report painkillers that were diverted to the black market," the paper notes.

Kentucky had 1,404 drug overdose deaths in 2016, and "a recent study found that the rate of deaths from poisoning — which primarily means drug overdoses — in Kentucky’s Appalachian counties was 141 percent higher than the national figure," note reporters Greg Kocher and Bill Estep. But so far, half of the Kentucky suits have come from Appalachian counties.

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