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McKesson headquarters

An exterior view of prescription drug distributor McKesson Corp. headquarters in San Francisco.

Top executives at the nation’s largest prescription drug distributor have been scheduled to answer questions under oath about pain pill shipments to West Virginia — part of a state lawsuit that seeks to hold the company accountable for the opioid epidemic.

Lawyers representing Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s office recently notified McKesson Corp. that they’ve scheduled depositions for six McKesson executives, including CEO John Hammergren and the company’s West Virginia sales manager, Tim Ashworth.

The state’s lawyers plan to question Hammergren and other top executives the week of April 23 at McKesson’s headquarters in San Francisco. Ashworth, who has been the company’s sales manager since at least 2011, has a deposition scheduled for June 12 in Charleston.

It’s believed to be the first time McKesson executives will be called on to talk about the company’s prescription opioid shipments in West Virginia.

In addition to being questioned under oath, the depositions will be videotaped.

Morrisey’s lawyers plan to ask McKesson executives about whether the company offered bonuses or commissions to employees for increased opioid sales, according to documents filed last week in Boone County Circuit Court. McKesson has said it did not award bonuses tied to sales of any controlled substances.

McKesson executives also will face questions about whether they knew about criminal investigations of pharmacies that purchased drugs from the distributor — and how they flagged “suspicious” orders from drugstores.

“The [deposition] notices speak for themselves, and we look forward to McKesson addressing the issues outlined in the notices,” said Lee Javins, a Charleston lawyer hired by Morrisey’s office to handle the lawsuit.

Last month, U.S. District Judge David Faber sent Morrisey’s lawsuit against McKesson back to Boone County, where it was initially filed in 2016.

A congressional committee already is investigating pain-pill shipments by McKesson and other distributors’ shipments to small-town pharmacies in West Virginia.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter to McKesson executives, raising questions about the company’s sales practices. In 2005 and 2006, McKesson shipped nearly 5 million doses of prescription painkillers to a now-shuttered pharmacy in Kermit, a town with 400 people, the committee said in the letter.

Between 2006 and 2014, McKesson also shipped a total of 5.8 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to a small pharmacy in Mount Gay, population 1,800. The company supplied another 2.3 million prescription painkillers to the Logan County drugstore’s branch location in Stollings, just 3 miles away, according to the committee’s letter.

In court filings, McKesson has noted that the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy has never investigated the company or tried to revoke its license to distribute prescription opioids and other controlled substances. McKesson also said the drugs it distributed in West Virginia and other states were legal under quotas set by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, along with the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, also are plaintiffs in the lawsuit against McKesson.

The oversupply of prescription painkillers is widely blamed for starting the opioid epidemic, which claimed more than 880 lives in West Virginia alone in 2016. Last year’s drug overdose deaths are still being counted.

In January 2017, the U.S. Justice Department finalized a $150 million settlement with McKesson. Federal prosecutors alleged that the company failed to detect and report pharmacies’ suspicious orders of prescription pain pills. McKesson disclosed the settlement amount in an April 2015 financial statement.

The settlement committed McKesson to a multi-year suspension of sales of controlled substances from distribution centers in Colorado, Ohio, Michigan and Florida. It also imposed new and enhanced compliance requirements on McKesson’s distribution system.

In 2008, McKesson agreed to a $13.25 million civil penalty for similar violations.

McKesson is the fifth-largest company in the United States, with revenue of more than $192 billion, according to the Fortune 500 list. A company spokeswoman did not return a request for comment Monday.

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

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