West Virginia is “ground zero” for America’s growing opioid crisis. In a speech in Charleston last September, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reported that in 2016, four out of five drug overdose deaths in the Mountain State were related to opioids. In addition, the top four counties in the nation for opioid-related deaths are in West Virginia (Wyoming, McDowell, Boone, Mingo) and another 6 WV counties are in the nation’s top 20. The crisis has worsened each year, catching lawmakers and health care industry officials flat-footed and scrambling for solutions.
In his speech, Attorney General Sessions credited West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey for his close partnership with the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District in fighting drug trafficking, and for being “tireless in his efforts to combat this crisis from all fronts.” Attorney General Morrisey has worked closely with the Justice Department to hold all culpable parts of the opioid supply chain to account.
In 2016, the West Virginia AG’s office took aim at McKesson Corporation, the nation’s largest distributor of pharmaceuticals, in a lawsuit filed in Boone County Circuit Court. The suit alleges that the company violated West Virginia’s Controlled Substances Act by failing to identify, report, and stop the shipment of suspicious opioid orders into the Mountain State from 2007 to the present.
McKesson is commonly referred to as “the largest company you have never heard of.” Based in San Francisco, they rank #5 on Fortune Magazine’s top 500 with revenue of nearly $200 billion, putting them in the same league as heavy hitters like Walmart, Apple, and Exxon Mobil. The company has been in existence for 185 years, and over the past two decades, they have profited greatly from the exponential growth of the pharmaceutical industry.
Their current CEO, John Hammergren, has been at the helm since 2001; and during his tenure, revenue has grown by nearly 500%. McKesson now has 68,000 employees and 28 distribution centers delivering pharmaceuticals to thousands of pharmacies, clinics, and hospitals across the nation.
The suit filed by Attorney General Morrisey’s office is one of several legal actions against the pharmaceutical distribution giant in recent years. In 2017, McKesson settled with the Justice Department for $150 million for similar violations. As part of that settlement, the company was forced to suspend sales of controlled substances for several years from four of its distribution centers. Fortune Magazine reports that numerous counties and towns in West Virginia have also filed lawsuits against McKesson, and their alleged “pill dumping” practices are the subject of a congressional investigation by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Depositions Scheduled in the Coming Months
The Charleston Gazette-Mail reports that there have been some recent developments in the West Virginia AG’s lawsuit against McKesson. U.S. District Judge David Faber sent the suit back to Boone County, where it was originally filed, and depositions have been scheduled for five of McKesson’s top executives (including CEO John Hammergren) and its West Virginia sales representative Tim Ashworth.
One of Bailey Javins & Carter’s attorneys, Lee Javins, is representing the State of WV and will be one of the lawyers deposing the McKesson employees. The CEO and the other top executives will be deposed at the company headquarters in San Francisco the week of April 23, and Ashworth will be deposed June 12 in Charleston. The company employees will be questioned under oath and the depositions will also be recorded on video.
The state of West Virginia is seeking answers to several questions; including whether or not company officials were aware of criminal investigations into certain pharmacies that purchased their products, and what their process is for flagging “suspicious” orders from drugstores. The state will also want to know whether or not the company paid bonuses or commissions to any employees for increased sales of opioids. McKesson has denied engaging in such practices. The state looks forward to the company officials fully answering these questions and clarifying the issues raised.
The Long Road Ahead
The New York Times reports that drug overdoses from opioid and other controlled substances are now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50. Drug overdoses killed more people in 2016 than guns or auto accidents, and these deaths are happening at a faster pace than the H.I.V. epidemic when it was at its peak. The crisis is so bad that, in 2016, life expectancies for Americans dropped for the second year in a row. This was the first time this occurred since the 1960s.
The opioid crisis has become a full-blown epidemic, and no single entity is totally responsible for it. Far too many medical professionals did not understand (or did not want to understand) the destructive potential of the drug. Pharmacists should have been more curious about the massive amounts of prescriptions coming from doctors and their affect on patients. And if distributors such as McKesson had paid closer attention to large shipments they were sending to low-population areas, the quantities of these drugs that ended up in the hands of patients would have been reduced.
This is a multi-faceted problem that requires a comprehensive solution. A large part of the solution is to hold all responsible parties fully accountable. The major players on the opioid supply chain need to feel the pain of putting profits before people, so they will stop these careless practices and take measures to protect the patients who are at risk of becoming addicted to this destructive substance.