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Ruling paves way for release of some opioid data compiled by feds

HUNTINGTON — A federal judge in Cleveland partially lifted Monday an order that had sealed extensive opioid-related data compiled by the federal government, paving the way for the information to be released to the public for the first time.

U.S. District Judge Dan Polster, who is overseeing about 1,800 lawsuits filed by local governments seeking damages from drug manufacturers and distributors for the opioid crisis, lifted the ban Monday on all data collected by the Drug Enforcement Administration prior to Dec. 31, 2012.

While data obtained after that date remains under seal, Polster is expected to rule later this month on what of that data should be released.

The judge’s order gives the go-ahead for the immediate release of six years of DEA data that will show the number of prescription opioids delivered to every pharmacy in the U.S. The information also identifies the companies that sold and delivered the pills.

HD Media — which owns the Charleston Gazette-Mail and the Herald-Dispatch — and The Washington Post intervened in court to seek the release of the prescription opioid sales data. Drug companies and the DEA spent more than a year fighting to keep the prescription opioid numbers shielded from the public.

“This is an extraordinary victory for people across the country whose communities were inundated by huge quantities of addictive prescription opioids and for an independent free press committed to digging deep to uncover the truth,” said Suzanne Weise, a Morgantown lawyer representing HD Media. “Poor, old and young were the targets of opioid manufacturers, distributors and retail pharmacies whose profits soared while hundreds of thousands died from overdoses, and the DEA failed to use the data to suppress the epidemic.”

Doug Reynolds, managing partner of HD Media, also hailed the legal victory. Reporters Courtney Hessler of the Herald-Dispatch and Eric Eyre of the Gazette-Mail have worked on the story. Eyre received a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for earlier reporting on shipments of opioids to West Virginia.

“I am so proud of Courtney and Eric’s pursuit of truth in this case,” Reynolds said. “You can’t fix a problem until you understand its origins.”

The data was turned over in three federal lawsuits filed against drug distributors and pharmacies in three counties, including Cabell County, in West Virginia, and Summit and Cuyahoga counties, in Ohio. The drug companies named in the lawsuits are accused of oversupplying communities with opioid painkillers, which is believed to have started the opioid epidemic.

Polster’s order comes after a June ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that said Polster abused his power in issuing a blanket protective order prohibiting public release of the data. The court said Polster should revisit the protective order, selectively choose what should be sealed and lift the blanket order.

The case went to the appeals court after Polster shot down media attempts to retrieve the data made in court filings by HD Media and The Washington Post. The two newspaper companies appealed his decision to the 6th Circuit and won.

The newspapers had argued public interest in viewing the data outweighed the government’s interest in secrecy.

HD Media expects it will receive the data within the next few days.

In a joint statement released Monday, the National Prescription Opiate Litigation MDL Plaintiffs’ Executive Committee co-leads, Huntington-based Paul T. Farrell Jr. of Greene Ketchum, Farrell, Bailey & Tweel LLP; Paul J. Hanly Jr. of Simmons Hanly Conroy; and Joe Rice of Motley Rice LLC., said the ruling was a positive and transparent step forward.

“Unearthing this data for the benefit of the public is part of the ongoing litigation process that started over a year and a half ago and is the beginning of the revelations to come around the role we believe the defendants had in fueling this epidemic. The American people deserve transparency, and that’s exactly what this order has given them,” they said.

Polster has ordered the sides in the case to meet and agree by July 25 on a new protective order for data collected after Jan. 1, 2013, and suspicious order reports, which would show flagged orders made by buyers.

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHDand via Twitter @HesslerHD.

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