Kentucky AG Accuses Cardinal Health of Contributing to Opioid Epidemic

There is plenty of blame to go around for the opioid scourge, and Cardinal Health, one the nation’s largest wholesale distributors of drugs, is now under fire. Reuters reports that the Kentucky attorney general has filed suit against the Dublin, Ohio-based health care company for failing to halt or investigate suspiciously large and frequent orders for prescription painkillers.

Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear has already filed two lawsuits against McKesson Corporation and Endo Pharmaceuticals for their role in the overdose deaths and hospitalizations that have swept the bluegrass state. According to the CDC, there were 42,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. last year and 1,400 Kentuckians lost their lives during that same time frame. 

Cardinal Health stands accused swamping rural Kentucky with prescription painkillers and profiting mightily in the process.  In his official statement, Beshear pointed out that, "According to Cardinal Health's second quarter results for fiscal year 2018, they reported revenue, just for their pharmaceutical segment, of $31.1 billion." 

Cardinal Health is under siege on all fronts and the company faces at least 343 opioid-related lawsuits. In an official statement Beshear said that he is “… committed to hauling each of these opioid companies into a Kentucky court to answer for their actions that have devastated our families, communities and state.” 

This is not a case of a single proactive AG going after offending corporations, but part of a larger trend of states, counties and municipalities striking back in an attempt to protect their citizens and recoup some of the astronomical costs incurred during this prescription drug-fueled wave of addiction and death. 

Cardinal Health has already paid the U.S. Justice Department $44 million after failing to alert the DEA of the massive opioid orders being placed in Florida, Maryland and New York.  A similar lawsuit filed in West Virginia in 2012 cost the company $20 million dollars. These dollar amounts are paltry compared to the company’s profits and the actual cost of the damage inflicted by the drugs that company’s like Cardinal Health are dealing. 

This disconnect can be traced to April 19, 2016, a point in time when the opioid epidemic had already claimed a quarter-million lives, fivefold the number of American lives lost in Vietnam. On that spring day, President Obama signed a law with an Orwellian name:  “The Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act of 2016.” This poorly named law makes it far more difficult to punish drug manufacturers and distributors who are diverting opioid pain medications to the black market. It represents a huge victory for pharmaceutical manufacturers over the DEA.

The law initially reared its head in 2014 and faced considerable pushback from Joe Rannazzisi, the head of the Office of Diversion Control for the DEA at the time. He has since been pushed out as the pharmaceutical companies and their congressional advocates have staffed the agency with individuals more amenable to their agenda.

To keep the spread of prescription drugs in check, the DEA relied heavily on the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. It requires drug companies to report large and suspicious orders. The suspensions, fines and the loss of DEA approval to manufacture or distribute narcotics could follow any failure to do so. During Rannazzisi’s tenure at the DEA, they repeatedly sounded the alarm that the number of drugs flooding the market was suspicious and fines totaling nearly $425 million dollars were levied.

The goal of the new 2016 law was to defang the DEA. The primary proponent of the bill was Rep. Tom Marino, who was slated to be President Trump’s next drug czar before his role in crafting this flawed legislation was widely reported and he withdrew his candidacy.

The law passed through Congress without scrutiny or debate, using parliamentary procedures usually saved for noncontroversial items. It is likely that President Obama and many of the lawmakers who signed this bill did not understand its full implications.

The bill had a number of well-compensated champions. The sponsors and cosponsors of this bill received $1.5 million from political action committees affiliated with the pharmaceutical industry. This is just a drop in the bucket when compared to the $106 million they have spent lobbying Congress between 2014 and 2016 alone.

The drug manufacturers can consider the money well spent. The fact is this law makes it close to impossible for the DEA to impound or freeze suspicious narcotic shipments from the drug companies. A drug manufacturer’s misconduct has to reach an extremely high threshold before any corrective measures or suspension orders can be sought. 

If the drug manufacturing and distribution practices of a company are so egregious that they run afoul of this law, they are given the opportunity to submit “corrective action” plans. These plans would outline changes they would attempt to make before the DEA could penalize them.

The end result is that it is virtually impossible to punish drug companies for the addictive drugs that they have flooded the market with. In 2011, the DEA filed 65 suspension orders against drug companies and this number has fallen to six this year. Not one of these orders has actually targeted a manufacturer.

It is important to stay informed about the machinations of the pharmaceutical industry, but the reality of the human condition is that pain needs to be addressed. The good news is that pain can be treated naturally without drugs. Make sure you read my article on science-backed, nondrug pain options and remain aware that the pharmaceutical companies will go to any length to defend their interests. That includes subverting the law and undermining the government itself with self-serving legislation.