A Washington Post investigation published this week points to the staggering extent the opioid epidemic has gripped our nation.
According to the Post’s reporting, America’s largest drug companies saturated the country with 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pain pills from 2006 through 2012 as the nation’s deadliest drug epidemic spun out of control.
The information was gleaned from the largest civil action lawsuit filed in U.S. history.
According to the Post, the data comes from a database maintained by the Drug Enforcement Administration that tracks the path of every single pain pill sold in the United States — from manufacturers and distributors to pharmacies in every town and city. The data provides an unprecedented look at the surge of legal pain pills that fueled the prescription opioid epidemic, which has resulted in nearly 100,000 deaths from 2006 through 2012.
What is more staggering is that six companies distributed 75% of the pills during this period: McKesson Corp., Walgreens, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, CVS and Walmart, according to an analysis of the database by The Washington Post. Three companies manufactured 88% of the opioids: SpecGx, a subsidiary of Mallinckrodt; Actavis Pharma; and Par Pharmaceutical, a subsidiary of Endo Pharmaceuticals, the Post reported.
Vermont has certainly not been immune to the crisis. It became such a concern, former Gov. Peter Shumlin made it the charge of a State of the State address in 2014.
A recent federal report found that Vermont had the lowest overdose death rate among the six New England states.
But at the same time, Vermont experienced a record number of fatal opiate overdoses in 2017, and will likely set a new record once 2018 figures are released. Many deaths are caused by the powerful opiate fentanyl.
Nationwide, the volume of the pills handled by the companies skyrocketed as the epidemic surged, increasing about 51% from 8.4 billion in 2006 to 12.6 billion in 2012. By contrast, doses of morphine, a well-known treatment for severe pain, averaged slightly more than 500 million a year during the period.
The reporting suggests that those 10 companies along with about a dozen others are now being sued in federal court in Cleveland by nearly 2,000 cities, towns and counties alleging that they conspired to flood the nation with opioids. The companies, in turn, have blamed the epidemic on overprescribing by doctors and pharmacies and on customers who abused the drugs. The companies say they were working to supply the needs of patients with legitimate prescriptions desperate for pain relief.
The database reveals what each company knew about the number of pills it was shipping and dispensing and precisely when they were aware of those volumes, year by year, town by town. In case after case, the companies allowed the drugs to reach the streets of communities large and small, despite persistent red flags that those pills were being sold in apparent violation of federal law and diverted to the black market, according to the lawsuits, the Post reported.
Plaintiffs have long accused drug manufacturers and wholesalers of fueling the opioid epidemic by producing and distributing billions of pain pills while making billions of dollars. The companies have paid more than $1 billion in fines to the Justice Department and Food and Drug Administration over opioid-related issues, and hundreds of millions more to settle state lawsuits.
Many filings and exhibits in the case have been sealed under a judicial protective order. The secrecy finally lifted after The Post and HD Media, which publishes the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, waged a year-long legal battle for access to documents and data from the case.
The reporting showed just how widespread and harmful the problem has become for our nation.
In Vermont, progress has been made.
A hub-and-spoke opiate treatment system came out of Shumlin’s historic speech. In the five years since, that system has expanded across Vermont, and it’s now a model that other states are replicating.
There are nine hub locations and 88 local spokes made up of doctors, nurses and counselors across the state. Vermont spends almost $55 million on that system. It is credited with eliminating wait times for people who want treatment. Currently, there are more than 7,000 people in the program.
Our effort here is commendable. But it is a drop in the bucket to a crisis that is crippling our nation. This lawsuit, and the dogged reporting taking place, is showing exactly where blame should be placed.