Washington State AG looks to hold major distributors accountable for fueling opioid epidemic
SEATTLE, WA (STL.News) – A King County Superior Court judge today rejected an attempt by three multi-billion dollar opioid distributors to dismiss Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s lawsuit seeking to hold the companies accountable for their role in fueling the nation’s opioid epidemic.
“These opioid distributors won’t avoid public accountability so easily,” Ferguson said. “The judge rejected these companies’ efforts to avoid their day in court. Those responsible for this epidemic must face accountability.”
After hearing arguments today, Judge Marshall Ferguson rejected the companies’ motion to dismiss the case.
Ferguson’s lawsuit, filed in March, asserts that McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc. and AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp. made billions of dollars feeding the opioid epidemic, shipping huge amounts of oxycodone, fentanyl, hydrocodone and other prescription opioids into the state even when they knew or should have known those drugs were likely to end up in the hands of drug dealers and addicts.
Opioid distributors are legally required to monitor the size and frequency of prescription opioid orders to identify suspicious orders that could be diverted into the illegal drug market. Distributors are required to stop these suspicious shipments and report them to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
Instead, McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen have faced repeated actions from the DEA for continuously failing to stop and report suspicious opioid shipments, paying hundreds of millions in fines for their failure to follow the rules.
Based on shipping data, a conservative calculation suggests these companies may have shipped more than 250,000 suspicious orders into Washington state between 2006 and 2014. A less conservative calculation puts that number more than 3 ½ times that high, at nearly a million.
Ferguson accuses McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen of violating the state Consumer Protection Act for filling thousands of suspicious orders in Washington state without adequately identifying them or reporting them. Their actions, Ferguson asserts, helped fuel the opioid epidemic in Washington state.
Ferguson’s lawsuit seeks civil penalties and damages from the companies. He also asks the court to order the distributors to give up the profits they made in Washington as a result of their illegal conduct. Sales of opioids are worth billions every year nationwide, and Washington’s portion is expected to be in the millions.
The surrendered profits will be used to remediate the effects of the opioid epidemic, possibly funding treatment, education and more.
Prescriptions and sales of opioids in Washington skyrocketed more than 500 percent between 1997 and 2011. In 2011, at the peak of overall sales in Washington, more than 112 million daily doses of all prescription opioids were dispensed in the state — enough for a 16-day supply for every woman, man and child in Washington.
In 2015, there were eight counties with more prescriptions than population, led by Asotin, with nearly 1 ½ prescriptions per person. The other counties were Clallam, Grays Harbor, Columbia, Garfield, Pend Orielle, Lewis and Benton.
In 2008, there were 16 counties with more prescriptions than people.
Between 2006 and 2017, opioid overdoses killed more than 8,000 Washingtonians, more than were killed by car accidents or firearms. The majority of drug overdose deaths in Washington state involve opioids.
Assistant Attorneys General Martha Rodriguez Lopez, Andrew Hughes, Tad Robinson O’Neill and Jeffrey Grant are handling the case for Washington.