After a four-year fight, two of the nation’s largest prescription drug distributors have agreed to settle a lawsuit that alleges the companies helped fuel West Virginia’s opioid problem.
The settlement puts an end to a lawsuit brought by the state of West Virginia against Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen, two wholesalers that have shipped massive quantities of pain pills to Southern West Virginia.
Boone County Circuit Court Judge William Thompson gave notice of the settlement in an order issued Tuesday. The terms weren’t disclosed. The state and the drug firms were directed to reveal settlement details, such as the amount the companies will pay West Virginia, by Jan. 9.
Tuesday’s announced settlement follows a Gazette-Mail investigation, which found drug wholesalers showered West Virginia with 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills over just six years, a period when 1,728 people fatally overdosed on those same two highly addictive and frequently abused painkillers.
Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen have denied any wrongdoing.
“We are pleased to have reached a resolution with the state of West Virginia,” AmerisourceBergen spokeswoman Lauren Moyer said Tuesday. “We are committed to the safe and appropriate delivery of controlled substances. With this matter settled, we look forward to focusing our full attention on continuing to work diligently with regulatory agencies and our partners throughout the supply chain to combat diversion and support appropriate access to medications.”
Cardinal Health spokesman Brett Ludwig said Tuesday the company was aware of the judge’s order, but he declined to comment on the settlement.
“As soon as the judge permits the parties to comment further, we will do so,” Ludwig said.
In 2012, then-Attorney General Darrell McGraw filed lawsuits against Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and a dozen smaller drug distributors. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey inherited the case after taking office in January 2013.
The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, along with the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, later joined the state’s lawsuit as plaintiffs.
Previous settlements, with nine smaller wholesalers, have netted the state more than $7.5 million, but the settlement with Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen is expected to be significantly higher.
Cardinal Health shipped more pain pills to West Virginia than any other wholesale distributor. AmerisourceBergen supplied the third-highest number of painkillers to the state.
A jury trial in the government’s lawsuit against AmerisourceBergen was scheduled to start next week.
Last January, Morrisey’s office sued McKesson Corp., the second-leading prescription opioid shipper to West Virginia. That case remains stuck in federal court, with no settlement expected anytime soon.
Morrisey’s office would not comment.
The state’s settlement with Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen won’t end all litigation the companies face in West Virginia. Last week, the McDowell County Commission filed suit against those firms and McKesson, alleging the wholesalers contributed to the county’s opioid epidemic by shipping far too many pain pills there.
McDowell County has the highest drug overdose death rate in the United States.
The commission’s lawsuit also named Dr. Harold A. Cofer Jr., a physician in nearby Bluefield who was disciplined by the West Virginia Board of Medicine earlier this year for his prescription writing.
The Gazette-Mail’s investigation, titled “Painkiller Profiteers,” revealed that a disproportionate number of pain pills were shipped to Southern West Virginia, a region that also shouldered the highest rate of overdose deaths caused by prescription opioids between 2007 and 2012. The largest shipments often went to independent drugstores in small towns.
The wholesalers ship drugs from manufacturers to pharmacies and hospitals.