Horry County files suit over ‘dark truth of opioid abuse’

This photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen in New York. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File)
This photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen in New York. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File) AP

Horry County on Thursday filed a lawsuit against several drug distributing corporations for allegedly causing the opioid epidemic in the county. The suit aims to stop the flow of opioids into Horry County and recover money spent fighting the crisis.

The attorney for the county, Charles Whetstone of the law firm Whetstone Perkins and Fulda, said that the case filed in federal court in Florence would be transferred to a court in Ohio as part of a mass litigation against the drug companies along with other similar lawsuits from around the country and state in order to get consistent rulings for all the cases.

Whetstone Perkins and Fulda also represent Marion and Dillon counties, which are filing similar suits.

The complaint names as defendants Amerisource Bergen Drug Corporation, Cardinal Health, McKesson Corporation and 110, LLC, and says they knowingly failed to stop suspicious drug shipments for profit, and that those actions caused the opioid epidemic in the county.

Amerisource Bergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson together are responsible for almost 90 percent of wholesale drug distribution in the United States, according to the suit.

All three corporations have in the past been investigated or fined by the Drug Enforcement Agency for “failure to report suspicious prescription drug orders,” according to the complaint, which says that the companies’ “unlawful” behavior has resulted in the diversion of prescription opioids into Horry County.

In high doses, opioids such as oxycodone and hydrocodone can be lethal and the lawsuit says that “misuse of these drugs has resulted in a national crisis of rising opioid overdose deaths, and that the the epidemic is “directly related to the increasingly widespread misuse of powerful opioid pain medications.”

The complaint says that many opioid abusers turn to heroin for a cheaper high, which it calls the “dark truth of opioid abuse and addiction upon which this complaint seeks to shine a light.”

The suit says that the defendants “shipped millions of doses of highly addictive controlled opioid drugs into relatively small locales, many of which, according to their own policies as well as state laws, should have been stopped and/or investigated as suspicious orders, but were not,” and that the defendants did that “deliberately, knowingly and for profit.”

The complaint says that previous fines imposed by the DEA failed to “change the conduct” of the defendants.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2016 there were 110 opioid prescriptions per 100 people in Horry County.

According to county coroner Robert Edge, there were 88 deaths in Horry County from opioid drug overdoses in 2016, when the county led the state in overdose deaths. In 2017, he said, there were 48, although there are other deaths that are still pending, so that number could rise.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control says there were 101 deaths in Horry County in 2016, but Edge said the difference between county and DHEC numbers may be due to suicides by pills that are recorded differently at the county and state level.

The lawsuit asks for actual and compensatory damages to be determined by a jury, as well as any profits the drug companies made from their alleged illegal actions.

County Chairman Mark Lazarus said the county hopes to use any money awarded from the lawsuit to pay for education and rehabilitation programs.

“If there is any money, the intention is to use that money to offset programs and cost associated with this epidemic,” he said, adding that he hopes all the lawsuits being filed across the country change the way the drug industry works.

“What your hopes are with the lawsuits, the pharmaceuticals reevaluate the way they distribute their medication and the way the push it on the doctors and provider,” Lazarus said.

In a statement on behalf of the defendants, Senior Vice President John Parker of trade association Healthcare Distribution Alliance said that instead of litigation, counties that are bringing lawsuits should address the “root causes” of the epidemic.

“The misuse and abuse of prescription opioids is a complex public health challenge that requires a collaborative and systemic response that engages all stakeholders,” Parker said. “Given our role, the idea that distributors are responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and is regulated.”

Christian Boschult: 843-626-0218, @TSN_Christian