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Oklahoma sues three major opioid distributors

Oklahoma sues three major opioid distributors
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Oklahoma is suing three of the country’s largest drug distributors over their alleged role in the state’s opioid crisis, the state announced Monday.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter (R) said McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc. and AmerisourceBergen Corp. “fueled the opioid crisis by supplying massive and patently unreasonable quantities of opioids to communities throughout the United States, including Oklahoma.” 

Hunter said the “Big Three” companies supplied more than 34 billion doses of opioids to Oklahoma and the rest of the U.S. between 2006 and 2012 and did not stop or report suspicious drug orders because they were making so much money.

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“Defendants ignored their duties and responsibility to protect against oversupply and diversion of opioids for illicit and nonmedical uses. Defendants did so for one reason: Greed,” Hunter said in the complaint.

Hunter said that between 2006 and 2012, there were over 1.4 billion opioid pills distributed in Oklahoma alone.

The lawsuit said the companies funneled more opioids into communities across the state than could have been expected to serve a legitimate medical need while ignoring red flags and suspicious orders. The state alleges negligence and unjust enrichment and is seeking compensatory damages.

In a statement to The Hill, AmerisourceBergen detailed its efforts to combat opioid abuse, while noting opioid distribution comprises only two percent of the company's sales. 

"Beyond our reporting and immediate halting of potentially suspicious orders, we refuse service to customers we deem as a diversion risk and provide daily reports to the DEA that detail the quantity, type, and the receiving pharmacy of every single order of these products that we distribute," the company said.

McKesson told The Hill the lawsuit mischaracterizes the company's "important but limited" role in the drug supply chain. 

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"Any suggestion that McKesson drove demand for opioids in this country reflects a fundamental misunderstanding and mischaracterization of our role as a distributor. We will continue to fight that mischaracterization and defend ourselves in the litigation," the company said.

Cardinal Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit was filed in Cleveland County, the same court where Oklahoma secured a $465 million verdict against opioid manufacturer Johnson & Johnson. That case is currently under appeal before the state Supreme Court.

Hunter has reached settlement agreements with several other opioid manufacturers in the past year, including $270 million with Purdue Pharma, $85 million with Teva Pharmaceuticals and $8.75 million with Endo Pharmaceuticals, which was announced just last week.

Nearly every state and more than 2,500 cities, tribes and municipalities have filed suits against opioid manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies for their respective roles in the opioid epidemic.

Oklahoma is the only state that has secured a verdict, though drug companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in out-of-court settlements without admitting any wrongdoing.  

The three distributors have also paid hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements and fines for failing to monitor suspicious orders of opioids. In October, they reached a $215 million settlement in Ohio just an hour before a landmark trial was set to begin.

--Updated at 7:00 p.m.