Big Pharma Accused Of Flooding Small Town With 20.8 Million Opioid Painkillers

Steve Birr | Vice Reporter

A small town in West Virginia was flooded with roughly 20.8 million opioid painkillers over the past decade by drug companies, according to a recent congressional investigation.

Williamson, in Mingo County, has a population of 2,900 but received annual shipments of millions of pain pills to two pharmacies serving the community. The House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is investigating the role drug distributors had in fueling the opioid epidemic, is scrutinizing drug wholesalers Miami-Luken and H.D. Smith, whose shipments of painkillers to Williamson sharply increased as overdose deaths were skyrocketing, reports Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Tug Valley Pharmacy and Hurley Drug received 10.2 million hydrocodone pills and 10.6 million oxycodone pills from drug wholesalers between 2006 and 2016, according to congressional investigators. Miami-Luken alone shipped 6.4 million painkillers to Tug Valley Pharmacy between 2008 and 2015.

“These numbers are outrageous, and we will get to the bottom of how this destruction was able to be unleashed across West Virginia,” Rep. Greg Walden, committee chairman, and Rep. Frank Pallone, a ranking member of the committee, said in a joint statement Monday. “The committee’s bipartisan investigation continues to identify systemic issues with the inordinate number of opioids distributed to small town pharmacies. The volume appears to be far in excess of the number of opioids that a pharmacy in that local area would be expected to receive.”

The House Energy and Commerce Committee sent letters to Miami-Luken and H.D. Smith asking the companies to explain why they didn’t flag suspicious pharmacy orders or work to reduce painkiller shipments in light of rising overdose deaths linked to the drugs.

The committee also raised questions regarding suspicious shipments to neighboring small towns in West Virginia from the two drug distributors. In 2008 for example, Miami-Luken flooded the town of Kermit with enough opioids to give every resident, including youth, 5,624 pills each.

In another example the committee points to a pharmacy in the town of Beckley, which received 16,800 oxycodone pills from Miami-Luken over a period of only five days.

Miami-Luken previously paid a $2.5 million settlement to West Virginia over allegations the company knowingly shipped an excessive amount of opioid medications into the state to maximize their profits. H.D. Smith paid a $3.5 million settlement to West Virginia in January 2017 over similar accusations.

West Virginia currently suffers the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the country due to opioid addiction, losing more than 880 people in 2016.

Opioid overdose made up a staggering 66 percent of all drug overdose deaths in 2016, killing 42,249 people in 2016, surpassing the annual number of lives lost to breast cancer. Deaths from synthetic opioids like fentanyl, a painkiller roughly 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, experienced a particularly dramatic increase, more than doubling from 9,580 lives in 2015 to 19,413 lives last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Officials say the epidemic is contributing to declining life expectancy in the U.S. Life expectancy dropped for the second consecutive year in 2016 for the first time since an outbreak of influenza in 1962 and 1963.

President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a “public health emergency” Oct. 26, giving states hit hard by opioid addiction flexibility on how they direct federal resources to combat rising drug deaths.

Nationally, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death for Americans under age 50, killing 63,600 people in 2016.

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