As Kentucky addicts died, drug company ‘flooded’ state with more pills, lawsuit says

An Ohio-based drug wholesaler “saturated and flooded” rural counties in Eastern Kentucky with millions of doses of painkillers even as drug overdose deaths spiraled, Attorney General Andy Beshear’s office charged in a lawsuit filed Monday.

The lawsuit alleges that Cardinal Health distributed excessive amounts of opioids, such as oxycodone, and failed to report suspiciously large shipments as required, choosing instead to “reap a windfall off the wave of addiction.”

It is the third lawsuit Beshear has filed against drug companies for allegedly inflaming the state’s addiction crisis in pursuit of profits.

The companies’ tactics “gave them record profits and left us with devastation,” Beshear said in a news conference.

Cardinal supplies drugs to pharmacies and institutions such as hospitals. Beshear cited several examples of the high volume of pills Cardinal shipped to Kentucky counties.

In Floyd County, for example, Cardinal distributed an estimated 11.6 million doses of prescription painkillers between Jan. 1, 2010 and Dec. 31. 2016 based on its market share, according to the lawsuit. That was enough for 302 pills for every man, woman and child in the county, Beshear said.

Cardinal sent enough pills to Clay County for 245 doses for every resident.

The lawsuit alleges violations statewide, but the amount of drugs per capita that Cardinal shipped to Eastern Kentucky counties was particularly concerning, Beshear said.

The company has sophisticated methods to track shipments and was aware of suspicious orders, but did not report them or halt shipments, the lawsuit alleges.

Cardinal also was aware of red flags that people were illegally selling pills they got from some of Cardinal’s pharmacy customers, the lawsuit alleges.

Those indications included people driving long distances to get to pharmacies; groups of people coming in with very similar prescriptions; and a high percentage of people paying for pills in cash.

Beshear noted that Cardinal reported more than $30 billion in revenue in the first quarter of the current fiscal year.

“Cardinal was just worried about the bottom line and the billions it was making,” not the health of Kentuckians struggling with addiction, Beshear said.

Cardinal Health said in a response that it is a leader in implementing programs to prevent opioid abuse and control diversion.

“We believe there is an urgent need to work towards real and meaningful solutions and we are actively engaged in solving this complex public health crisis and saving lives,” the company said in a statement. “We do not believe litigation is the solution to this problem and will defend ourselves vigorously against baseless lawsuits.”

The company has admitted improper conduct in the past, Beshear said, reaching a nationwide, $44 million settlement in 2016 for “failure to detect and report suspicious orders of controlled substances.”

Cardinal’s conduct not only fed the state’s problem with abuse of prescription pills, but played a part in abuse of heroin and fentanyl as opioid users moved to those drugs, the lawsuit claims.

The new lawsuit, filed in state court in Jefferson County, seeks an unspecified amount of penalties; damages to compensate the state for costs, such as treating addicts, locking up drug offenders and caring for foster children; damages to punish the company; and an order barring alleged illegal conduct.

Any money recovered should be used for drug treatment, prevention and enforcement, Beshear said.

Beshear’s office also has sued McKesson Corp. and Endo Pharmaceuticals for alleged excessive distribution of opioids that worsened the state’s drug epidemic.

Kentucky recorded 1,404 overdose deaths in 2016. That record total would have been even higher had emergency responders not used a drug on many victims that counters the effects of an opioid overdose.

The total number of Kentucky overdose deaths from 2012 through 2016, at 5,821, outstripped the total number of highway fatalities in the state by more than 2,000.

The lawsuit filed Monday comes against a backdrop of hundreds of similar claims against Cardinal and other wholesalers in state and federal courts acrocss the nation.