KOKOMO - City officials announced Monday that Kokomo is joining cities from across Indiana and the United States in a public nuisance lawsuit against the country's three largest wholesale drug distributors.
Those distributors - AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson Corp. - are accused by the city in a press release of "dumping millions of dollars' worth of prescription opiates into its community" and as being "responsible for the opioid epidemic."
The three companies, maintaining annual revenues of $400 billion and profits also in the billions of dollars, control more than 80 percent of the market for prescription opioids, according to the city release.
“It is important that we hold these companies accountable for their role in the opioid crisis,” said Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight. “These drugs are ravaging families and destroying lives. We are taking this legal action because they failed their obligations to patients and continue to fail to stem the tide of opioid addiction.”
City officials say they are joining the suit because the "wholesale drug distributors failed in their legal obligation to notify the Drug Enforcement Administration of suspicious orders, even as the number of pills flowing into our country continued to rise."
"Because prescription opioids are a highly addictive substance, in 1970 Congress designed a system to control the volume of opioid pills being distributed in this country," explains the release.
"It let only a select few wholesalers gain the right to deliver opioids. In exchange, those companies agreed to halt suspicious orders and control against the diversion of these dangerous drugs to illegitimate uses."
The rising costs of treatment for addiction, education and law enforcement were also cited by city officials, who highlighted a federal study that says roughly 1 in 7 people who received a refill or had a second authorized opioid prescription were still on opioids one year later.
"Kokomo is preparing an individual federal lawsuit against the country’s three largest wholesale drug distributors,” said Chou-il Lee, of Indianapolis-based law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, in a statement.
“The complaint is being prepared and will be filed sometime in the next three weeks, at which point Kokomo will move to transfer the action to the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Ohio as part of a multidistrict litigation with similar cases for pre-trial coordination or consolidation"
Howard County has felt firsthand the impact of the opioid crisis and prescription drug abuse.
In June, John Thomas, a physician assistant charged in conjunction with the Wagoner Medical Clinic scandal, was sentenced to roughly three years of supervised probation and a lifetime forfeiture of his physician assistant license as part of a plea agreement.
The development drew to a quiet close the court saga involving the Wagoner Medical Clinic, even if the destruction left in the pill mill’s wake continues to be felt in Kokomo and surrounding counties on a daily basis.
Officials raided the two Wagoner Medical Clinics in March 2013, arresting several clinic doctors and employees roughly a month later in a case put together by Kokomo police and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officers.
In all, prosecutors filed 95 charges in April 2013 against the Wagoners and their associates.
Prosecutors say more than two dozen people died as a result of the illegal prescribing practices at the facility, including pre-signed prescriptions utilized by physician assistants.
The clinic has in part been blamed by local officials for rising overdose death totals and the ubiquity of opiate addiction.
In a previous interview, Howard County Coroner Steven Seele highlighted the impact that pill mills and prescription drug abuse, and the removal of those options, have had in the local area.
“I just wonder if we had such an abundance of pill usage, and then all of a sudden the pill mills got shut down and the price of pills went up and people were scrambling to get their addiction fed,” he said. “So they turned to heroin when normally these people would not turn to heroin.
“And they got into something they just didn’t know how to use.”
The most obvious example is the eradication of the Wagoner Medical Clinic and, in subsequent months and years, the clinic’s associates. With that came a drying-up of the pill market in Howard County.
This created an environment where addicts had to look elsewhere for a high, meaning inexperienced drug users began substituting heroin for prescription medication.
And it has played a role in continuing to devastate Howard County.
“I have to say, I did not expect to have happen what we’ve had happen in this county starting in January, though I know that we had a problem,” said Seele at an Opioid Drug Summit last month about 2017 overdoses, which have reached heights never before seen in Howard County.
“I don’t know what the answer is, I’m lost. I’m asked that every day.”
Kokomo Deputy Mayor David Tharp said the lawsuit decision was not in response to a bombshell joint investigation by 60 Minutes and The Washington Post into the drug industry’s role in lobbying for legislation beneficial to the pharmaceutical industry.
Tharp said the lawsuit was in the works before the 60 Minutes/Post reporting became public.
The Post reported on Sept. 15 that the drug industry worked behind the scenes with lobbyists and key members of Congress, pouring more than a million dollars into their election campaigns. The major drug distributors prevailed upon the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Justice Department to agree to industry-friendly legislation, which undermined efforts to restrict the flow of pain pills that have led to tens of thousands of deaths.
Kokomo is working with several expert law firms, experienced in the pharmaceutical industry. Those firms include: Baron & Budd; Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty & Proctor; Greene Ketchum Bailey Farrell & Tweel; Hill, Peterson, Carper, Bee & Deitzler; McHugh Fuller Law Group; and Taft Stettinius & Hollister, LLP.