Fayette County Prosecutor: ‘We are gathering information’ on pharmaceutical lawsuit

By Ashley Bunton - and the Associated Press

Commissioners in four Ohio counties filed lawsuits last Friday alleging three pharmaceutical distributors failed to regulate orders of prescription opiates and created a public nuisance.

Brown, Clermont, Vinton and Belmont counties are being represented in lawsuits by multiple outside law firms. These suits against wholesale pharmaceutical distributors come just two months after Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine filed suit in Ross County against five pharmaceutical drug manufacturers.

Fayette County is not presently involved in any lawsuits against pharmaceutical distributors or manufacturers, according to Fayette County Prosecutor Jess Weade. However, that could soon change, as county officials have begun to look into the possibility of filing a lawsuit with outside firms.

Weade told the Record-Herald Thursday, “We are gathering information as to whether to join with the outside firms,” and said the county should be able to make a decision in the next few weeks.

“In terms of what the lawsuits would mean for the county is what I’m trying to gather. Also, I believe the commissioners would have to sign on to the suit. Thus, at this time, we are still trying to determine if there is any substance to these suits, or if they are mere headline grabbers,” said Weade.

United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in Columbus Wednesday that US prosecutors, including for the Southern District of Ohio, will begin pilot programs looking into healthcare fraud in Ohio communities ravaged by the opioid drug epidemic. Weade said Fayette County has not been contacted by the federal government in regards to Sessions’ announcement.

“That being said, we would welcome any assistance the federal government would give in terms of fighting opioid abuse,” said Weade.

As the county gathers information on pharmaceutical lawsuits, one of the national law firms handling the wholesale drug distribution suits, Baron & Budd, said Thursday that they plan to work with additional counties in Ohio.

Baron & Budd attorney Burton LeBlanc said the law firm is filing a suit on behalf of Scioto County possibly as soon as this week and has another four or five counties in Ohio that they will be filing for soon after.

When asked if the suits are “headline grabbers” or if counties can expect to get something out of these wholesale drug distribution lawsuits, LeBlanc said, “Absolutely there’s merit to these lawsuits.”

LeBlanc said the goal of the suits is to secure funding for education, law enforcement, medical needs, rehabilitation, and other aspects of the epidemic that the distribution companies have caused by not reporting suspicious distribution to the DEA and halting supply shipments of opioids.

LeBlanc said the firm handles cases in Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia where people have been most affected by the opioid epidemic and first began filing suits against pharmaceutical companies in hard-hit West Virginia.

“In West Virginia, through our lawsuits, we determined that the wholesale distribution of opioids was over 780 million pills to a population of 1.8 million over five years. These wholesale distributors have a duty under federal law to report suspicious activity and suspicious activity is defined as a deviation in size, frequency, or pattern, and I would suggest that 780 million pills prescribed to a population of 1.8 million is absolutely a deviation of size, frequency, or pattern,” said LeBlanc. “First of all, we know we cannot arrest our way out of this problem and the wholesale distributors under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 have a duty to report these suspicious orders, which they failed to do, so we’re going after the source which is the wholesale distributors.”

On Wednesday the national law firm of Baron & Budd; the law firm of Greene, Ketchum, Farrell, Bailey & Tweel LLP; and the law firm of Levin Papantonio, announced that they have filed lawsuits on behalf of four Ohio counties against the nation’s largest pharmaceutical distributors for their role in the widespread diversion of prescription opiates for nonmedical purposes.

The counties allege that three Fortune 500 pharmaceutical distributors – Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, and McKesson Corp. – each played a role in creating a public nuisance by failing to regulate orders of prescription opiates. The following cases were filed on Friday, July 28 in federal district court in the Southeastern District of Ohio:

Vinton County Board of County Commissioners v. AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation, Cardinal Health, Inc., and McKesson Corporation: Case No.: 2:17-cv-665

Belmont County Board of County Commissioners v. AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation, Cardinal Health, Inc., and McKesson Corporation: Case No.: 2:17-cv-663

Clermont County Board of County Commissioners v. AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation, Cardinal Health, Inc., and McKesson Corporation: Case No.: 2:17-cv-662

Brown County Board of County Commissioners v. AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation, Cardinal Health, Inc., and McKesson Corporation: Case No.: 2:17-cv-00664

“It’s easy to think addicts or a small number of bad doctors are to blame for this problem. But responsibility for the opioid epidemic rests with the pharmaceutical industry – and in particular the pharmaceutical distributors who were entrusted with reporting suspicious orders and halting orders of these dangerous drugs,” said Burton LeBlanc. “These companies need to put real dollars back into Ohio communities to combat the public nuisance they have created.”

In 1970, Congress created a “closed” chain of distribution specifically designed to prevent the diversion of legally produced controlled substances into the illicit market. In this system, distributors purchase prescription medicines and other medical products directly from manufacturers and then fill orders placed by pharmacies, hospitals, long-term care facilities, clinics and other healthcare providers. This closed-system requires wholesale distributors to monitor, identify, halt and report “suspicious orders” of controlled substances.

Opioids are widely diverted and improperly used throughout Ohio. In Vinton County, for example, in 2015, enough opioids were dispensed that every county resident could have received 105.3 doses of the addictive medication. Widespread diversion in counties throughout Ohio have resulted in the rising number of heroin users, escalating rates of unintentional drug overdoses, more children forced into the foster care system and increased budgetary constraints placed on several departments including public health and law enforcement.

Widespread opioid use has also led to a spike in drug overdose cases in Ohio. In Clermont County, for example, the number of unintentional drug overdoses nearly doubled between 2013 and 2015.

Belmont, Brown, Clermont and Vinton counties are seeking damages to cover the costs of services including, but not limited to: medical care and treatment for patients suffering from opioid-related addiction or disease; treatment of infants born with opioid-related medical conditions; costs associated with caring for children whose parents suffer from opioid addiction; and law enforcement and public safety services related to the opioid epidemic.

The opioid epidemic in Ohio is not isolated. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) opioids were specifically involved in 33,091 overdose deaths throughout the United States in 2015, and opioid overdoses have quadrupled since 1999. By comparison, in 2015, the National Safety Council reported 37,757 traffic related fatalities throughout the U.S.

In addition to Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressing he opioid crisis in a Columbus speech Wednesday, the White House Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis has called on President Donald Trump to declare a national public health emergency.

Along with Green Ketchum, Levin Papantonio and Baron & Budd, the counties are also working with the following law firms related to these cases: Hill, Peterson, Carper, Bee & Deitzler, PLLC; The McHugh Fuller Law Group; and Lancione & Lancione, LLC.

The Associated Press and Business Wire provided part of this story.


By Ashley Bunton

and the Associated Press

Reach Ashley by calling her at (740) 313-0355 or by searching Twitter.com for @ashbunton

Reach Ashley by calling her at (740) 313-0355 or by searching Twitter.com for @ashbunton