Cincinnati sues drug distributors over opioid crisis

Posted at 10:11 AM, Aug 15, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-16 14:54:42-04

CINCINNATI – The Queen City is the latest community to take on a legal battle against prescription drug distributors that leaders here say helped fuel the opioid epidemic.

Cincinnati on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against the three largest wholesale distributors of opioids, demanding the firms reimburse the city for the costs of curbing the epidemic – including treatment for those addicted and caring for the children of addicted parents.

The lawsuit alleges the firms broke laws established for distributors of controlled substances by ignoring "red flags" when they filled orders for excessive amounts of powerfully addictive opioids from pharmacies across the city.

"They broke the law and we intend to hold them accountable,” Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley told WCPO. “They helped create the opioid epidemic and today we’re asking them to help find a cure. They profited by breaking the law and we want our money back."

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The distributors named in the lawsuit include Dublin-based Cardinal Health, Pennsylvania-based AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp. and San Francisco-based McKesson Corp.

In a statement to WCPO, McKesson said:

“We take our responsibility to help manage the safety and integrity of the pharmaceutical supply chain extremely seriously and are committed to maintaining -- and continuously improving -- strong programs designed to detect and prevent opioid diversion. While we don’t manufacture, prescribe or dispense opioids to patients, we are doing everything we can to help address this crisis in close partnership with doctors, pharmacists, government and other organizations across the supply chain.”

Cardinal Health shared this response:

"The people of Cardinal Health care deeply about the devastation opioid abuse has caused American families and communities and are committed to helping solve this complex national public health crisis. We are industry leaders in implementing state-of-the-art controls to combat the diversion of pain medications from legitimate uses, and have funded community education and prevention programs for a decade. We operate as part of a multi-faceted and highly regulated healthcare system – we do not manufacture, promote or prescribe prescription medications to members of the public – and believe everyone in that chain, including us, must do their part, which is ultimately why we believe these copycat lawsuits filed against us are misguided, and do nothing to stem the crisis. We will defend ourselves vigorously in court and at the same time continue to work alongside regulators, manufacturers, prescribers, pharmacists and patients to fight opioid abuse and addiction." 

AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp. gave this response:

Wholesale drug distributors including AmerisourceBergen are logistics companies who are responsible for getting Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved drugs from pharmaceutical companies who manufacturer them to Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) registered pharmacies who dispense them based on prescriptions written by licensed doctors and health care providers. We do not have access to patient information, have no capability or desire to encourage prescribing or dispensing of pain medicines and are not qualified to interfere with clinical decisions between patients and their physicians. Beyond reporting and stopping orders determined to be suspicious, we also provide daily reports about the quantity, type and receiving pharmacy of every single order of controlled substances we distribute to regulatory and enforcement professionals.

We intend to vigorously defend ourselves in this litigation while continuing to work collaboratively to combat drug diversion.

Each of the firms, referred to in the lawsuit as "the Big 3", have been investigated or fined by the DEA for failing to report suspicious orders -- which include extremely large orders or those with unusually high frequency.

From 2010 through 2015 more than 290 million opioids were distributed in Hamilton County, according to the lawsuit. Pulling in other DEA and state pharmacy data, the true number could be closer to nearly half a billion opioids distributed over the last 10 years locally, said Paul Farrell, of Greene, Ketchum, Farrell, Bailey & Tweel.  

That’s enough for a more than year-and-a-half supply of opioids for Hamilton County's 802,000 residents.

One in five people prescribed just a 10-day supply are estimated to become addicted, according to findings published by Center for Disease Control this March.

"The sheer volume of prescription opioids distributed to pharmacies in Cincinnati is excessive for the medical need of the community and facially suspicious,” according to the lawsuit. "Some red flags are so obvious that no one who engages in the legitimate distribution of controlled substances can reasonably claim ignorance of them."

While the lawsuit is targeting the "Big 3" firms for now, "discovery will likely reveal others who likewise engaged in unlawful conduct," according to the filing.

Cincinnati has retained the law firm Greene, Ketchum, Farrell, Bailey & Tweel as co-counsel in the case. That’s the same West Virginia-based firm that is leading similar legal battles filed in its home state and elsewhere in Southwest Ohio, including Clermont and Brown counties.

Read the full complaint below:

Cincinnati v. Amerisourcebergen by WCPO Web Team on Scribd