Late last week, lawyers representing the Cherokee Nation filed a lawsuit against major pharmaceutical companies, claiming they have pumped dangerous painkillers into Native American communities in Oklahoma. The Washington Post obtained a copy of the court filing and reported that the companies are accused of breaking laws by “failing to prevent the diversion of pain pills to the black market.”
Specifically, the suit claims the corporations “turned a blind eye to the problem of opioid diversion and profited from the sale of prescription opioids to the citizens of the Cherokee Nation in quantities that far exceeded the number of prescriptions that could reasonably have been used for legitimate medical purposes.” With the markets bursting with pain pills, the drugs quickly found their way onto the black market. Lawyers for the Cherokee Nation posit that the companies bear some of the responsibility for that “opioid diversion.”
The claim the opioid crisis has caused the Cherokee Nation to incur “increased spending on law enforcement, medical facilities, drug treatment centers and foster and adoption programs,” the Post reported.
Attorneys hope that by filing the suits in tribal court, they will be able to gain quicker access to records that could show distinct negligence on the part of major drug companies. The suit names McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen, which together control 85% of prescription drug distribution in the United States. Walgreen’s and CVS are also included in the suit.
In late 2016, an investigative piece by the West Virginia Gazette reported that the same three companies “supplied more than half of all pain pills statewide” while West Virginia was in the throes of a massive opioid crisis. In one county, AmerisouceBergen went from distributing 292,000 pills to 1.2 million pills in a single year. In a statement, Amerisource passed the blame, saying doctors and pharmacists — not the companies — were to blame.
In reference to the Cherokee Nation lawsuit, AmerisourceBergen issued a statement similar to their West Virginia defense, claiming “the issue of opioid abuse is a complex one that spans the full healthcare spectrum, including manufacturers, wholesalers, insurers, prescribers, pharmacists and regulatory and enforcement agencies.” However, Cherokee Attorney General Todd Hembree didn’t seem to echo the drug companies’ sentiments. He claimed the corporations’ “main goal is profit, and this scourge has cost lives and the Cherokee Nation millions.” The West Virginia Gazette article reported that the CEOs of the three major companies have collectively been paid $450 million in the past four years.
Like the lawsuit leveled against the companies in West Virginia, the Cherokee lawsuit charges the companies, commonly referred to as “the big three,” with pursuing “unfair and deceptive practices.”
“These defendants really had the ability to limit the number of deaths and the level of addiction if they just followed the law,” said Richard Fields, a lawyer for the Cherokees.
The lawsuit alleges that in 2015, the companies pumped enough drugs into the Cherokee Nation to provide “every adult and child with 955 5mg pills.” In West Virginia, that number was 433.
And the companies have put their earnings to good use, filling the pockets of politicians they hope might be sympathetic to their causes. The Center for Responsive Politics showed that AmerisourceBergen gave $20k to Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and over $10k to Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) — both of whom have loud voices in Washington DC.
The Cherokee Nation’s lawsuit is unlikely to be the last filed against the “big three,” as the opioid crisis sweeping the nation shows no signs of slowing down. A fact sheet published by the American Society of Addiction Medicine states that “heroin overdose deaths among women have tripled [from 2010 to 2013].”
Principal chief of the Cherokees, Bill John Baker, said, “[T]ribal nations have survived disease, removal from our homelands, termination and other adversities, and still we prospered. However, I fear the opioid epidemic is emerging as the next great challenge of our modern era.”
The lawyers filing cases against the companies are hoping the multi-billion dollar corporations will start taking responsibility for the drugs they sell.