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Flooded with pain pills, a WV town strikes back against drug distributors

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail
Kermit Mayor Charles Sparks (center), surrounded by Town Council members and lawyers, filed a lawsuit Tuesday morning with Mingo County Deputy Circuit Clerk Camilla Ellis on behalf of the town against five of the biggest drug wholesalers in the United States. The companies shipped nearly 9 million pain pills to a small Kermit pharmacy in just two years.

KERMIT — This town of 392 people in Southern West Virginia is suing out-of-state drug distributors that shipped nearly 9 million highly addictive pain pills to a single pharmacy there in just two years.

Kermit Mayor Charles Sparks and town council members filed a lawsuit Tuesday against five of the nation’s largest prescription drug wholesalers — McKesson, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, Miami-Luken and H.D. Smith.

“They had no regard for what was going on here,” Sparks said. “They didn’t care how many lives they were ruining and what they were doing. They were making money on the backs of all of us, and they didn’t care.”

Sparks and three town councilmembers hand-delivered the lawsuit to the circuit clerk at the Mingo County Courthouse in Williamson. The suit seeks to recoup the town’s costs in dealing with opioid abuse.

Kermit’s lawsuit also names Cameron Justice, former owner of the now-shuttered Justice Medical Clinic, as a defendant. In 2010, Justice was sentenced to two and a half years in federal prison after pleading guilty to Medicare fraud and conspiring to misuse a federal registration number to distribute prescription painkillers.

Kermit’s lawsuit follows the Gazette-Mail’s “Painkiller Profiteers” series, which reported that drug firms sold nearly 9 million doses of hydrocodone — a powerful painkiller linked to drug overdose deaths — to the Sav-Rite Pharmacy in Kermit between 2007 and 2008, according to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration data obtained by the newspaper.

Kermit essentially became “ground zero” for America’s opioid epidemic, according to the lawsuit.

Over a six-year period, wholesalers saturated Kermit with more than 12 million hydrocodone tablets.

“To dump that many pills in a little ol’ town like this ... it’s mind-boggling what was going on,” Sparks said.

The shipments slowed after Justice was arrested and his clinic was shut down.

Two doctors who worked at Justice’s clinic — and the pharmacist that owned Sav-Rite Pharmacy — also served time in federal prison.

The pharmacist admitted to making $500,000 a month while the Justice clinic was churning out prescriptions and the wholesalers kept shipping massive numbers of pain pills to Kermit.

Despite the drugstore’s huge profits, Sav-Rite’s owner paid only about $2,500 a month in business and occupational taxes, Kermit town records show.

So that left the town on the hook for extra expenses caused by the stampede of customers that frequented the pharmacy. Addicts drove from Ohio, Virginia and Kentucky to get their hydrocodone prescriptions filled.

“The entire town was constantly clogged with traffic,” said Tommy Preece, a council member who also serves as fire chief. “You couldn’t find a place to park at the post office. It wasn’t a safe place to be.”

“They’d come by the vanload,” Sparks added. “They’d park a van and eight people would get out.”

“I was afraid to get out of my automobile,” said Anna Mae Wellman, a council member.

The town had to hire an extra police officer to handle a spike in crime and extra crews to clean up the mess the pharmacy’s clientele left behind — food wrappers, cigarette boxes, beer cans, condoms and needles. “We had to buy extra dumpsters,” said Peggy Moore, a council member.

The lawsuit alleges the Justice clinic’s bogus prescriptions and the drug distributors’ unbridled shipments caused “catastrophic damage” to residents of Kermit and surrounding communities in rural Mingo and Wayne counties. Many addicts who started taking prescription opioids have switched to heroin in recent years, according to the complaint.

Mingo County has one of the highest drug overdose death rates in the nation.

“The overdose deaths we’ve had in the last year or so, it’s unbelievable to me,” Wellman said. “It’s young people.”

In recent weeks, several counties and cities have sued drug distributors or announced plans to do so. Kermit is, by far, the smallest municipality to file a lawsuit.

Williamson lawyers Tish Chafin and Truman Chafin, a former state senator, and Charleston lawyers Harry Bell and Mark Troy are representing the town of Kermit.

The lawsuit has been assigned to Mingo Circuit Judge Miki Thompson.

The town’s pharmacy is under new ownership. Pain pills are no longer pouring into Kermit. Things have quieted considerably.

Even so, the drug shippers and Justice clinic’s former owner should be held accountable for past misdeeds, council members said.

“It’s our town,” Preece said. “We really want to take care of it.”

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4869 or follow @ericeyre on Twitter.

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