The U.S. Justice Department, Drug Enforcement Administration and the nation’s largest drug distributors are objecting to a West Virginia newspaper chain’s request for federal records that show prescription opioid shipments to every pharmacy in the state.
The Justice Department filed a motion this week in federal court, seeking to block the Cabell County Commission from releasing the opioid sales data to HD Media, which owns the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the Herald-Dispatch and other newspapers across Southern West Virginia. HD Media requested the opioid information from the Cabell commission in a public records request last week.
Justice Department lawyers have asked U.S District Judge Dan Polster to issue an order that would prohibit the release of the opioid numbers. The government’s motion — signed by lawyers with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Northern Ohio — argues that the prescription opioid sales information could be used for “press stories, commercial advantage or even illegal drug trafficking.”
In a separate filing, drug wholesalers McKesson, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, Miami-Luken and H.D. Smith Wholesale Drug Co. joined the federal government’s objection to the release of opioid sales data.
Cabell County Commission President Bob Bailey said Tuesday he believes it is wrong to withhold the information from the public’s review.
“I don’t know why we would deny it. It is public information, to be honest with you,” he said. “I don’t ever want to withhold any public information from the public. They are the people we work for, as far as I am concerned.”
Cabell County is one of more than 500 government bodies across the United States that are suing prescription drug distributors and manufacturers, alleging the companies failed to report suspicious orders of prescription opioids, as required by federal and state law. The multi-district litigation has been consolidated in federal court in Ohio.
The lawsuits include 61 from West Virginia, 55 from Kentucky and 81 from Ohio.
Earlier this year, Polster ordered the DEA to turn over the sales data to lawyers representing towns, cities and counties suing the drug firms. The records disclose the exact number of pain pills shipped to every pharmacy in the country. Cabell County was recently furnished with the data.
About 27 gigabytes of raw data was turned over to Cabell County attorneys by the DEA as a result. The commission used the data to better pinpoint drug firms and pharmacies it believed had helped fuel the drug epidemic throughout Cabell County and the state. Those businesses were later added to the complaints filed in federal court.
HD Media was the first news outlet to request the opioid shipment data. The Washington Post has since filed separate public records requests for the data with Cuyahoga County and Summit County, in Ohio. The Justice Department and drug companies also are challenging the Post’s attempt to get the pill shipment numbers.
Under a previous court order, Cabell County and others suing the drug firms were required to alert Polster about any public records requests for what’s known as the Automated Records and Consolidated Orders System data.
In opposing the release, Justice Department lawyers said the DEA “data contains confidential commercial information about [drug companies’] commercial activities.” The lawyers allege that the disclosure of the opioid shipments would circumvent federal laws and nullify the court’s previous “protective order” that seals the data from the public.
The Cabell County Commission recently filed an updated complaint against the drug companies, citing preliminary data that shows shipments of painkillers such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, hydromorphone and prescription fentanyl to Cabell County and the rest of West Virginia. However, the specific pill numbers are redacted, or blacked out, in the revised complaint.
Between 2007 and 2012, drug wholesalers shipped nearly 40 million doses of hydrocodone (sold under brand names such as Lortab) and oxycodone (OxyContin) to pharmacies in Cabell County, according to DEA data obtained by the Gazette-Mail in 2016.
The oversupply of painkillers -- triggered by doctors writing too many prescriptions -- has been widely blamed for starting and fueling the opioid epidemic, which claimed more than 930 lives in West Virginia last year.
On Wednesday, Polster issued an order, allowing HD Media and The Washington Post to intervene in the federal opioid case – but only to address their public records requests.
The newspapers have until July 9 to file briefs that explain why the opioid pill data should be released and made public.
The judge gave the DEA and drug distributors until June 25 to file additional objections. Drug manufacturers have notified the court that they also plan to oppose the release of the prescription opioid shipping numbers.
Lawyers representing towns, cities and counties suing the drug companies will be permitted to weigh in in a single brief.
In his order, Polster said that additional government entities across the U.S. have been receiving public record requests for the DEA data.
In a previous order, Polster remarked that the DEA data has been “extremely informative” and provided “highly-specific information regarding the historic patterns of opioid sales ...”
A DEA spokesman declined comment Tuesday, citing the ongoing litigation.