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On Tuesday, July 16, The Washington Post unveiled a database created by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) that tracked every sale of opioid drugs in the country.
According to the newspaper, “This database, which the industry and the government fought to keep secret, was dug out by an investigative team at The Washington Post. It is data collected by the DEA about every single opioid pill made, shipped and sold in the U.S. between 2006 and 2012.”
The Washington Post made the database accessible to every journalist in the U.S. In its reporting, it analyzed the sale of the two pills that have had the biggest impact on the opioid crisis: oxycodone and hydrocodone.
The data can be broken down county by county, and the number of addictive pain pills that were funneled through the pharmacies in our region is stunning. From 2006 to 2009, there were 27,245,290 pills delivered to Sullivan County. With a population of about 76,000, that means about 538 pills were distributed over that seven-year period for every man, woman and child in the county.
During that same period, 13,884,070 pills went to Wayne County. Wayne County has a population of about 51,000, which comes to about 272 oxycodone and hydrocodone pills for every resident of the county.
Pharmacies in Pike County received 14,270,410 pills, or 256 pills for each of its 55,691 people.
There are hundreds of pending lawsuits against the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture opioids. The manufacturers have blamed the opioid crises on unscrupulous doctors that over-prescribed the painkillers, and on patients who have misused and became addicted to them. Yet, this has been a banner year for settlements of lawsuits with pharmaceutical companies agreeing to large payouts to plaintiffs.
Insys Therapeutics agreed to a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice in June regarding its opioid product called Subsys, and agreed to plead guilty to mail fraud. The Justice Department claimed Insys paid kickbacks to doctors in exchange for prescribing more Subsys to patients. The settlement included $225 million in fines and restitution.
The State of Oklahoma sued Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and Johnson & Johnson for causing the opioid crises there. Purdue Pharma agreed to a settlement in March; this includes Purdue, the manufacturer of Oxycontin, paying $270 million in legal fees in addition to funding opioid addiction research. The Oklahoma attorney general had accused Purdue of inflaming the opioid crises by using aggressive and deceptive marketing tactics.
In June, a court approved an $85 million settlement with Teva Pharmaceuticals—that money is to be used to mitigate the impacts of the opioid crises. Although, under the deal, Teva did not admit to any wrongdoing, the company agreed to no longer promote the use of opioids in the state. According to attorney general Mike Hunter, the agreement will help prevent doctors and Oklahomans from being misled by marketing materials and provides law enforcement with another investigative tool to help us shut down pill mills and illicit enterprises.”
The final case brought by Oklahoma was filed against Johnson & Johnson, and closing arguments wrapped up on that case on July 15. The state is seeking up to $17.5 billion in damages from the company, although it also sought very large settlements in the first two cases and settled for far less.
Still, a large award will likely have an impact on the outcomes of the hundreds of other cases brought against opioid manufacturers, as well as the consolidated case in Ohio, where more than 1,200 local governments are suing 23 opioid manufacturers and distributors. That case is being presided over by Judge Dan Polster, the same judge who ordered that The Washington Post would have access to the DEA opioid database. The case also names a couple of the country’s pharmacy chains, CVS, Walgreens and Walmart.
There is some damning evidence in the Ohio case. In 2009, Victor Borelli, an account manager for Mallinckrodt, an Irish-registered drug manufacturer and the largest opioid manufacturer in the U.S., sent an email to Steve Cochrane, the vice-president of sales for wholesale drug distributor KeySource Medical. Borelli told Cochrane he had just shipped 1,200 bottles of oxycodone.
According to multiple news accounts, Cochrane responded, “Keep ‘em comin’! Flyin’ out of there. It’s like people are addicted to these things or something. Oh, wait, people are. . .”
Borelli replied: “Just like [the] Doritos [they] keep eating. We’ll make more.”
Companies that manufacture and distribute opioids are supposed to have systems in place to monitor “suspicious” drug orders. The industry delivered more than 76 billion opioid pills in the U.S. during the seven years in question. Surely many of those deliveries were suspicious.