A Native American tribe is suing the six largest drug distributors and pharmacies in the country, charging the companies with flooding their community with hundreds of millions of highly addictive pain pills.
Lawyers for the Cherokee Nation filed a lawsuit on Thursday against the three largest drug distributors – McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen – which control 85 to 90 percent of all prescription drug distribution in the country.
The suit also charges three of the largest retail drug distributors and pharmacies – CVS, Walgreens and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. – for failing to prevent the diversion of opioid drugs to the black market, profiting from the opioid epidemic, and decimating 14 counties in northeast Oklahoma that comprise the Cherokee Nation.
“The defendants will need to answer for turning a blind eye to the grave harm they are causing individuals, their families and communities, which are left to pick up the pieces,” Richard Fields, a lawyer hired by the Cherokee Nation, said in a press release.
The lawyers argue distributors knew or should have known they were facilitating the opioid epidemic. They cite how the industry ignored guidance from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on how to identify “red flags,” monitor suspicious opioid orders, and properly report diversion.
“These defendants really had the ability to limit the number of deaths and the level of addiction if they just followed the law,” said Fields, according to the Washington Post.
The lawsuit also claims distributors broke federal due diligence laws by allowing “opioid diversion” to occur. Opioid diversion happens when the supply chain is broken by distributors who fill orders that are suddenly thousands of pills above the average or larger than the population of the area. The supply chain can also be broken at the pharmacy level by pharmacists who fill illegitimate prescriptions, allow drugs to be lost or stolen or ignore other “red flags.”
“They enabled prescription opioids to fall into illicit distribution channels, failed to alert regulators of extreme volume, and incentivized sales of these drugs with financial bonuses,” Todd Hembree, the Cherokee Nation Attorney General, said in the press release.
In 2015, the lawsuit claims an estimated 845 million milligrams of opioids were distributed in the 14 counties that comprise the Cherokee Nation. That averages out to 703 milligrams for every member of the Cherokee Nation within those counties or an estimated 7,200 milligrams a year for every prescription opioid user.
As drugs flooded into the community, the overdose rate among prescription opioid users quadrupled during the last 20 years. Between 2003 and 2014 there were more than 350 opioid related deaths within the Cherokee Nation, which is “significantly higher” than the rest of the nation. Now, the lawsuit claims, more adults in the Cherokee Nation die from overdoses than car accidents.
Meanwhile, the companies profited an estimated $378.4 billion in 2015, according to the lawsuit.
“Their main goal is profit, and this scourge has cost lives and the Cherokee Nation millions,” said Todd Hembree, attorney general for the Cherokees, according to the Washington Post.
This marks the first time an Indian nation has filed a suit against opioid distributors for damaging the community. Lawyers claim that the lawsuit is “the Cherokee Nation’s only remaining weapon to fight against the worsening opioid abuse epidemic that Defendants have caused in the Cherokee Nation.”
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Lawyers are seeking to hold the companies responsible for perpetuating the opioid crisis. They also hope to gain access to internal records that could prove the companies “Knowingly or negligently distributed and dispensed prescription opioid drugs” and purposefully “created an environment in which drug diversion can flourish.”
“Tribal nations have survived disease, removal from our homelands, termination and other adversities, and still we prospered. However, I fear the opioid epidemic is emerging as the next great challenge of our modern era,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker said in the press release.
“As we fight this epidemic in our hospitals, our schools and our Cherokee homes, we will also use our legal system to make sure the companies, who put profits over people while our society is crippled by this epidemic, are held responsible for their actions,” Baker said.