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State sues distributors of opioid painkillers, alleged role in abuse

Attorney General Tim Fox

Attorney General Tim Fox on Monday sued two major distributors of prescription painkillers in Montana, saying they’re partly responsible for a tidal wave of drugs that have led to addiction, deaths and illegal sales.

“It is time to hold these companies accountable for their reckless behavior, which put profits ahead of public safety,” he said at a news conference in Helena.

The lawsuit, filed in state District Court, said McKesson Corp. and Cardinal Health should have reported to authorities the suspiciously large and frequent orders of opioid drugs they brought into Montana from 2006-2014.

Instead, the companies “turned a blind eye to those requirements and the devastating effects that (they) caused, in favor of their own profits,” the suit said.

The lawsuit said the companies violated Montana’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Act and asked for civil penalties, damages and payment that will “abate fully the public nuisance (they have) caused.”

Sunny Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for McKesson, said any suggestion that the company drove the demand for opioids in the country “reflects a fundamental misunderstanding and mischaracterization of our role as distributor.”

“We will continue to fight that mischaracterization and defend ourselves in the litigation,” she told MTN News.

But Fox noted that McKesson has already paid $163 million in civil penalties and other payments stemming from similar lawsuits, and that Cardinal has paid $98 million.

Monday’s lawsuit is not the only major civil action Fox’s office has taken related to opioid abuse in Montana.

Three years ago, the state sued Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, accusing the company of helping stoke the opioid-addiction crisis in the country by falsely marketing the drug as safe for treating chronic pain.

Fox said that lawsuit remains on hold while settlement talks occur as Purdue sorts out its finances in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

McKesson and Cardinal are responsible for one-third of the opioids shipped into Montana between 2006 and 2014, Fox said – the equivalent of 432 million pills.

“That’s more than 400 estimated 10-milligram opioid pills for every man, woman and child in this state,” the attorney general said.

Mark Mattioli, chief of the state Justice Department’s Consumer Protection Bureau, said it was a clear situation of over-supply of potentially addictive pills.

“We had way, way more opioids in our society than could possibly be needed to treat the pain in this state,” he said.

Fox said Montana ranked among the top states for per-capita opioid sales from 2006-2011 and that 700 overdose deaths have occurred since 2000. From 2011-2013, prescription drug overdoses caused at least 369 deaths and more than 7,200 hospital admissions and emergency-room visits, he said.

When asked whether physicians share responsibility for prescribing the drugs, Fox said it’s the job of licensing officials to police the ranks of physicians or those who prescribe medicines.

Bryan Lockerby, head of the agency’s Criminal Investigation Division, also said the over-supply of prescription painkillers has created a black market for the drugs in Montana and problems that rival those of illegal drugs.

“There’s a saying that it’s not the dog barking, it’s the one sneaking up behind you that you have to watch out for,” he said. “The barking dog has been the illegal drugs that are coming in: the cocaine, the methamphetamine, the heroin. Now all of a sudden the dog sneaking up behind you becomes opioids.”