A town in West Virginia’s poorest county filed a lawsuit against the nation’s five largest drug shippers Monday, alleging that the companies delivered massive numbers of prescription pain pills to the area and left the city to “clean up the mess.”
Welch, population 2,200, claims the drug distributors created a “public nuisance” that has strained the city’s sanitation, law enforcement and emergency services, while the companies “sat back and counted the money they made off their misdeeds.”
“Like sharks circling their prey, multibillion-dollar companies, along with smaller players like local physicians, descended upon Appalachia for the sole purpose of profiting off of the prescription drug-fueled feeding frenzy,” wrote lawyers hired by the city.
Welch, which seeks to recoup costs caused by the opioid epidemic, is suing drug wholesalers McKesson, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, Miami-Luken and H.D. Smith. The lawsuit also names Dr. Harold Anthony Cofer, a Mercer County physician who formerly had a practice in McDowell County.
Welch joins a growing list of towns, cities and counties in West Virginia that have filed lawsuits against drug wholesalers — or announced intentions to do so.
Welch alleges that the drug wholesalers didn’t do enough to stop prescription painkillers from getting into the wrong hands.
“The [companies] received compensation in the form of millions of dollars per year for shipping volumes of drugs well beyond what a reasonable company would expect,” Welch’s lawyers wrote in a 32-page complaint.
McDowell County has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation. Welch is the county seat.
“When the dangerous and addictive drugs caused harm to the public health of Welch residents ... [the drug distributors] were nowhere to be seen, but Welch was there to dispatch emergency services, run drug treatment programs, investigate drug overdoses, care for the infirm and transport dead bodies,” the town’s lawyers wrote.
The drug problem also led to an increase in litter, crime, housing code violations and clogged water and sewer lines, according to the lawsuit.
Welch’s complaint also alleges that Cofer, who had a medical office in nearby Northfork from 2012 to 2015, wrote an excessive number of prescriptions for pain pills.
Last year, the West Virginia 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, 2016. The board did not suspend Cofer’s license.
In December, a Gazette-Mail investigation revealed that drug wholesalers shipped a disproportionate number of highly addictive painkillers to Southern West Virginia. The region, which includes 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 U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration records obtained by the newspaper.
The McDowell County Commission filed suit against the same drug wholesalers and Cofer in late December.
The drug companies have denied any wrongdoing, saying they shipped drugs to licensed pharmacies that filled prescriptions from licensed doctors. Cofer has refused to comment on the lawsuits.
Welch is being represented by Williamson lawyers Tish and Truman Chafin, along with Charleston attorneys Mark Troy and Harry Bell.
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com, 304-348-4869 or follow @ericeyre on Twitter.