We now know that officials all over the country, both at the state and federal levels, are joining forces to go after Big Pharma companies for pushing powerful opioid painkillers that contributed to one of the greatest addiction outbreaks in American history. While not everyone agrees on the role prescription drugs played in the opioid crisis, many believe the questionable marketing and distribution practices is reason enough for real intervention.
Lawsuits against opioid makers are taking place all over the US, and distribution companies are finding themselves in the hot seat.
DEA vs Opioid Distributor
This latest news comes following an investigation into Morris & Dickson. Allegedly, the investigation uncovered evidence that the Big Pharma opioid distributor neglected to inform the DEA about large quantities of addiction painkillers being bought up by independent pharmacies.
This is a problem because, according to The Hill, reporting such information to the DEA is a requirement.
Back in October of 2017 the investigation into the opioid distributor out of Shreveport, Louisiana got kicked off after reports came in that Morris & Dickson had sold narcotics to five of the state’s top 10 drug-purchasing pharmacies, but never filed any suspicious activity reports in any of these cases. In a statement Friday, the Justice Department revealed that according to the DEA investigation, independent pharmacies were allowed to purchase six times the amount they would normally order from the opioid distributor.
For the record- pharmaceutical distributors like Morris & Dickson are legally required to report unusually large shipments of narcotics to the government as a safeguard against prescription medications from making their way to the illicit drug market. DEA Acting Administrator Robert W. Patterson said in a statement:
“Distributors have an obligation to ensure that all pharmaceutical controlled substances their customer’s order are for legitimate use, and it is their duty to identify, recognize and report suspicious orders to DEA,”
“This is another reminder that DEA will hold accountable those companies who choose to operate outside the law.”
The Big Pharma opioid distributor will have the chance to appeal the suspension during an administrative hearing.
Morrison & Dickson Fight Back
Let the record show that Morrison & Dickson are definitely not taking these charges sitting down. The opioid distributor has struck back against the suspension with a federal lawsuit. They adamantly hold that they will fight the suspension. Company president Paul M. Dickson released his own statement, saying:
“Sadly, in this case, the DEA has gotten it wrong. We would’ve proved that to them had they given us the chance.”
They already asked a judge last Thursday to overturn the DEA suspension. In the legal claim against the DEA order the opioid distributor states:
“Make no mistake—this is a life and death situation. Morris & Dickson services 30-40% of the hospital drug market in Louisiana and Texas alone. If Morris & Dickson cannot ship needed medications to these hospitals, these hospitals may face immediate drug shortages.”
The company president also maintains that the opioid distributor has already greatly reduced its circulation of opioids. Dickson emphasizes that the company provides medications that many patients do desparately need. He also acknowledges the devastation caused by the opioid crisis, saying:
“Everyone in the Morris & Dickson family has been touched by the opioid crisis. That’s why we’ve taken aggressive and effective voluntary measures against any potential opioid diversion from medical use. We have reduced our opioid distribution dramatically. And it’s why we’re so proud of our history of 177 years with no outside enforcement actions against us.”
At this point, only time will tell if the company will have to adhere to the suspension for much longer.
Some people argue that moves like this from the DEA are too aggressive or an over-reach. However, given the circumstances, this seems like a logical response. Looking at the massive shipments of Oxycodone and Hydrocodone, it seems like it shouldn’t be too much to ask they notify the DEA.
What is Next?
Big Pharma executives testified for Congress yesterday, answering questions about their role in the prescription drug problem. The Washington Post reports that this could be a defining moment for the opioid industry. Witnesses for the hearing included high ranking executives from:
- Miami-Luken, INC
- McKesson Corporation
- Cardinal Health
- AmerisourceBergen Corporation
- HD Smith Wholesale Drug Company
During the hearing, Congressman Gregg Harper of Mississippi states:
“We have learned much from the investigation but still have many questions,”
“Why did the distributors repeatedly fail to report suspicious orders of opioids or exercise effective controls against diversion?”
He goes on to explain that the DEA identified opioid distributor companies as a key element to combating the diversion of drugs to the black market. He states that distributors have often claimed that they were too limited to properly address these issues, as they do not understand the whole scope as the DEA does. However, he argues that distributors do have a great deal of data collection, and should be aware of their impact.
According to Congressman Harper, distributors also frequently argue that they are simply providing a service. They do not control the demand, but simply offer the supply based on the prescriptions from physicians. This argument seems a bit of a cop-out, and almost sounds like something a street-level drug dealer would say.
The committee also adds that over the course of 6 years, opioid distributor companies filled the state of West Virginia with over 780 million Hydrocodone and Oxycodone pills, while 1,728 people in West Virginia fatally overdosed on those two painkillers.
In their opening statements, each Big Pharma distributor representative acknowledged the devastation of the epidemic. However, when asked by Chairman Harper if they believed their companies contributed to the opioid epidemic, except for the chairman of the board for Miami-Luken Dr. Robert E. Mastandrea, they all said no.
In fact, Dr. Mastandrea seemed to be the only one consistently willing to admit that Miami-Luken had made mistakes that helped create the opioid crisis.
While it will take time to determine the impact of these testimonies, one thing we can say now is that drug distribution companies are quickly finding themselves on the chopping block when it comes down to the efforts to curb prescription opioids abuse.