Drug-addled WV county sues pain-pill shippers, doctor

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The elected leaders of West Virginia’s poorest and most drug-ravaged county are suing the nation’s three largest prescription drug distributors.

The McDowell County Commission filed a lawsuit Friday against Cardinal Health, McKesson Corp. and AmerisourceBergen, alleging the out-of-state drug companies fueled the county’s opioid epidemic by shipping an excessive number of pain pills to the county.

Commissioners also sued Dr. Harold A. Cofer Jr. The state Board of Medicine disciplined Cofer earlier this year amid an investigation into his prescribing of controlled substances.

“McDowell County was once a thriving community, now laid wasted by drug addictions that have destroyed lives, broken up families and caused a dramatic increase in crime, addiction-related social and health issues, overdoses and even death,” said John Yanchunis, a Florida lawyer representing county commissioners.

In February, the Board of Medicine investigated allegations that Cofer wrote prescriptions for two patients who later overdosed and died after taking narcotics that the doctor prescribed. The board ordered Cofer to drug screen patients, monitor their pill counts and enroll in a pain-management course in Atlanta, according to a consent order filed Feb. 23. The board did not suspend Cofer’s license.

Reached at his clinic Friday, Cofer would not comment for this report.

The McDowell County lawsuit comes five days after a Gazette-Mail investigation revealed that drug wholesalers shipped a disproportionate number of highly addictive painkillers to Southern West Virginia. The region, including McDowell County, also shouldered a disproportionate number of overdose deaths.

McDowell County, which has 28,000 people, was shipped 9 million hydrocodone pills (sold under brand names like Lortab) over six years, and another 3.2 million oxycodone (OxyContin) tablets, according to DEA records obtained by the newspaper.

McDowell County has the highest drug overdose death rate of any county in the United States. The county ranks second in the nation for overdose fatalities caused by prescription opioids.

The drug wholesalers are some of the largest corporations in America. The companies had the ability to “slow down, question, inspect, alert or otherwise limit the flow” of prescription opioids into McDowell County, “but chose not to do so,” the lawsuit alleges.

Instead, the wholesalers supplied millions of doses of narcotics that supported the demands of bogus pain clinics that churned out illegal prescriptions, according to the lawsuit.

“In over 36 years of litigation, this is one of the most outrageous actions by businesses to profit over the misery and depth of despair destroying families and communities in West Virginia,” said Harry Bell, a Charleston lawyer who’s also representing McDowell County commissioners.

McDowell County faces a $600,000 budget shortfall this year.

Last week, county commissioners proposed laying off six sheriff deputies, nearly half the department. Sheriff Martin West strongly objected, and commissioners instead found a temporary fix to save the deputies’ jobs. Commissioners voted to shift funds — $21,000 a month — from the county ambulance authority to the sheriff’s office. The ambulance authority was idled last year.

The commission’s lawyers argue that the drug firms’ and doctor’s actions have caused “addiction and destruction” and left the county to deal with a “continuing financial drain on its resources.”

“Filing this suit before the holiday is important, to provide hope to the citizens of McDowell County that, in the new year, they will begin to see relief from the suffering they have endured as a result of the dumping of these dangerous, highly addictive drugs in their backyard,” said Mark Troy, a third lawyer on the case.

A Cardinal Health spokeswoman would not comment Friday.

AmerisourceBergen spokesman Gabe Weissman said he couldn’t comment on the lawsuit’s specifics because the company had yet to receive a copy of the McDowell County complaint.

“The characterizations of our industry by some of the lawyers quoted in this article are inaccurate and, obviously, inflammatory,” Weissman said, “but certainly do not represent a true understanding of the challenge that regulatory authorities, distributors, physicians and pharmacists face when working to provide access to medication for those who need it while preventing misuse by those who don’t.”

A McKesson spokeswoman said the company would get back to the Gazette-Mail if the wholesaler had a comment. The firm hadn’t released a statement by Friday evening.

This isn’t the first time drug wholesalers have been sued in West Virginia.

In 2012, then-Attorney General Darrell McGraw filed lawsuits against Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and a dozen smaller drug distributors, alleging that the companies helped fuel West Virginia’s prescription drug problem.

The Department of Health and Human Resources, along with the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, have since joined the lawsuit as plaintiffs.

In January, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey sued McKesson in Boone County Circuit Court. The case has moved to federal court.

Most of the smaller drug wholesalers have settled their lawsuits with the state. They also have denied any wrongdoing. To date, the settlements have netted the state more than $6.7 million.

Also Friday, Cardinal Health announced that it had agreed to pay a $44 million fine to the U.S. Justice Department to settle allegations that the company failed to report suspicious drug orders from pharmacies in Florida and Maryland. As part of the same investigation, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration suspended Cardinal Health’s license to distribute narcotics from its Lakeland, Florida, warehouse between 2012 and 2014.

“National pharmaceutical drug companies are not exempt from following the law,” Adolphus P. Wright, special agent in charge of the DEA’s Miami Field Division, said in a release. “This settlement sends out a clear message that all drug companies will be held accountable when they violate the law and threaten public health and safety.”

The settlement allows Cardinal Health to “continue to focus on working with all participants in addressing the epidemic of prescription drug abuse,” said Craig Morford, chief legal and compliance officer for the company.

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

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