In West Virginia, Opioid Distributors Are Finally On Trial

9:16 minutes

white pills spilling out from pill bottles
Credit: Shutterstock

A trial is underway in West Virginia against the nation’s three largest opioid distributors: Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, and McKesson. The companies are accused of funneling massive amounts of painkillers to West Virginia communities, fueling the opioid crisis that has devastated parts of the region.

By some measures, Cabell County has the worst drug overdose rate in the country, and its rate of overdose deaths is six times the national average. While the companies say the doctors who prescribed the pills are to blame, this trial is a community’s attempt to hold the massive companies accountable. The city of Huntington, West Virginia and the Cabell County Commission brought the case against the companies. 

Joining Ira to talk about this trial and what led up to it is Eric Eyre, investigative reporter at Mountain State Spotlight in Charleston, West Virginia. Eric won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the opioid epidemic in West Virginia, and is the author of the book Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic.

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Segment Guests

Eric Eyre

Eric Eyre is an investigative reporter with Mountain State Spotlight in Charleston, West Virginia.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. There’s a landmark trial going on in West Virginia against the three largest opioid distributors in the country. The state has been one of the worst hit by the opioid crisis, and communities say these companies are to blame for moving massive amounts of painkillers to West Virginia. It’s been estimated that for just the hardest hit county in the state, it’s going to take more than $2 billion to recover from this public health crisis.

Joining me to shed more light on what’s going on with this trial is my guest Eric Eyre, reporter at Mountain State Spotlight, based in Charleston, West Virginia. Eyre won the Pulitzer Prize for investigating West Virginia’s opioid crisis in 2017. Welcome to Science Friday.

ERIC EYRE: Thanks for having me on.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Can you start us off with the basics, who’s on what side, what’s going on?

ERIC EYRE: Sure. On one side you have the city of Huntington, which is one of the larger cities in West Virginia, and you have Cabell County, and Huntington is the county seat of Cabell County. And they’re two areas that have been hit particularly hard by the opioid crisis.

On the other side, as you mentioned, we have the nation’s three largest prescription drug distributors. They’re known in the industry as the Big Three. It’s Cardinal Health, McKesson, and AmerisourceBergen. They’re not household names, but two of the companies, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen, are in the top 10 in the Fortune 500, and Cardinal Health, the other defendant, is I think in the top 20 of the Fortune 500.

And basically, they’re being accused of fueling the opioid crisis by flooding communities with prescription opioids like OxyContin and also, by doing so, creating a public nuisance, not unlike a company that would get in trouble for polluting our community with toxic chemicals.

IRA FLATOW: And their defense has been what?

ERIC EYRE: Their defense has been that their shipments really derived or were triggered by massive overprescribing by doctors throughout the state. They also point fingers at the DEA for setting quotas for painkillers too high, annual quotas. They’re even starting pointing fingers at some of the manufacturers like Purdue Pharma. For years they were in lockstep with drug manufacturers, but now they’re saying that the actions of Purdue Pharma were the main cause of this escalating number of pills that were distributed.

IRA FLATOW: As I’ve been saying, you’ve been covering this trial for Mountain State Spotlight. What has come to light since it started?

ERIC EYRE: Well, we’re in it three weeks already. We thought there’d be a settlement. I’m surprised that they continue– backing up a second, there was one in Ohio that two counties settled about a year ago. This is the first one to go on trial. And so far, we’ve heard from a lot of people in Huntington, like the fire chief Jan Rader, who talked about how her paramedics were suffering from PTSD because of all the incessant calls that they get and the overdoses that they respond to, especially the ones that are difficult are the ones that are people in their teens or early 20s.

And we’ve heard a lot of testimony from one of the company’s executives, it’s called AmerisourceBergen, that’s the 10th largest company on the Fortune 500. And basically, we’ve seen evidence that these executives circulated emails that made fun of West Virginians, calling them hillbillies, and also emails that made fun of people from Kentucky, joking that it was– there’s one in particular that jokes, the executives said it’s surprising that this person in Kentucky can even write.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s not going to sit well with the judge, probably, or is there a jury here?

ERIC EYRE: It’s a bench trial, it’s a non-jury trial. They tried to do that for expediency. But the judge did flinch, he did show concern when this came out, when these emails came out. Basically, these emails were written by executives at the time that there was a huge surge in overdose deaths, essentially, as I wrote in my column, that they were mocking us while our co-workers, our friends, our neighbors were dying in record numbers after taking too many of the painkillers from the massive shipments that they sent to West Virginia.

IRA FLATOW: That’s amazing. How big of a grip did these companies have on the state government?

ERIC EYRE: Well, they had a big grip, in particular Cardinal Health. Their main lobbyist for many years is married to our attorney general who is pursuing these cases. They’ve got lobbyists everywhere, and they’ve got lobbyists on Capitol Hill that during previous hearings on the opioid crisis, we came up with evidence that they were providing questions to the House members that were asking questions about how to solve the opioid crisis.

So between the politicians and the lobbyists, there’s an extreme amount of control going on.

IRA FLATOW: When we talk about wide-scale crises like the opioid epidemic, it can be hard to understand the toll these things have on individual communities. You mentioned about the toll taken just on the health-care workers. Can you paint a picture of just how big of a crisis this was and still is?

ERIC EYRE: Sure. Well, the latest numbers from last year show that 1,275 West Virginians died of a drug overdose last year. And that’s a record number for our state. Basically, the opiate crisis here affects everyone and everybody. And you have babies being born dependent on drugs, you’ve got these soaring treatment costs, you’ve got overcrowded jails, we have a foster family crisis, and we have a lot of grandparents raising their grandkids because the kids’ father and mother have passed away due to an overdose.

The pandemic hasn’t helped things. It’s made the opioid crisis that much worse. There was a loss of connection during the pandemic in our rising addiction. And after two years of declining overdoses, we’re now seeing a 50% spike over the past year, so it’s been devastating.

IRA FLATOW: Your recent book, Death in Mud Lick, is about the opioid crisis in West Virginia. You’ve been covering this for so long and watched the toll it’s taken on the community. So what’s it like seeing this all come to trial now?

ERIC EYRE: Yeah, it’s been a long time, a lot of delays, and I’ve been writing about this issue for eight years now and of course, like you said, I wrote a book. But now for the opioid distributors, it’s finally their day of reckoning. And for the thousands of families who lost loved ones, this is their chance to essentially stare down the giants of the opioid industry and try to hold them accountable for the deaths and destruction that they’re accused of causing by flooding the communities with so many painkillers.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, as you mentioned, the trial in West Virginia is not the only trial against opiate distributors and manufacturers recently. Do you think we might have turned a corner in this crisis?

ERIC EYRE: Well, indeed it’s not the only trial, there’s more than 2,000 similar cases already in the pipeline, most of them have been consolidated in federal court [INAUDIBLE]. But what happens here with this trial in West Virginia, in particular in Cabell County, it’s not going to stay in Cabell County. Whether it be a judge giving an award for damages or there’s still a possibility of a settlement or we could get nothing from this, that will provide a framework for future settlements across the state.

And the other big factor going on is there’s a $26 billion settlement in the works with mostly distributors but also one manufacturer. It’s a nationwide settlement, but West Virginia has chosen to stay out of it because they were only going to get approximately $160 million from it. So next week we’re supposed to hear word that that settlement probably is going to be finalized.

And as far as turning a corner, we kind of had turned a corner, we had two years of declining overdoses, but then it’s been sort of two steps forward, one step back with the new numbers that we got for the overdoses during the pandemic. So I’m hopeful that if we do what we were doing for the last two years, we can reverse this trend and save more lives. So I think there is some hope.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Eric, thank you for your work, and thank you for taking time to be with us today.

ERIC EYRE: Thanks for having me on. I really appreciate it.

IRA FLATOW: Eric Eyre, investigative reporter at Mountain State Spotlight in Charleston, West Virginia.

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