Cherokee Nation Sues Pharmacies, Drug Distributors For Opioid Crisis

By Victoria Kim 04/26/17

Walmart, Walgreens and CVS Health are among the defendants listed in the first-of-its-kind lawsuit.

Outside of a Walgreens store front.

The Cherokee Nation has filed suit against six pharmacies and drug distributors—for the companies’ alleged role in allowing “vast amounts of opioids” to “flow freely” to the black market.

The pharmacies listed as defendants are CVS Health, Walgreens, and Walmart; and among the pharmaceutical distributors: AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, and McKesson.

The lawsuit alleges that by not doing enough to fight drug diversion—i.e. prevent the powerful pain meds from ending up on the black market—the companies are partly responsible for the rise of opioid addiction, overdose deaths, and health care costs affecting the 14 Oklahoma counties where the Cherokee reside.

“Defendants have created an environment in which drug diversion can flourish,” says the lawsuit, which was filed in the Cherokee Nation District Court last Thursday, April 20. “The brunt of the epidemic could have been, and should have been, prevented by the defendant companies.”

According to CNN, opioid prescription rates are among the nation’s highest in Oklahoma, where the tribe is based. “There’s a very large volume of opioids being distributed in the Cherokee territory—sufficiently large to be shocking,” said Richard Fields, special counsel to the attorney general of the Cherokee Nation.

The companies are accused of knowingly violating federal drug regulations which require reporting suspicious orders for opioids and protecting pills from theft.

According to Fields, the tribe is seeking “hundreds of millions of dollars” in damages to cover addiction treatment, medical treatment for NAS babies, and law enforcement costs.

While this is the first time such a lawsuit has been filed in a tribal court, some of these drug companies are already familiar with this legal battle.

According to CNN, McKesson paid a $150 million penalty for failing to report suspicious drug orders in January. The same month, Cardinal Health paid $20 million to the state of West Virginia. And the month prior, the company paid $34 million in penalties—for similar violations of federal drug regulations.

In March, U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri called the settlements "too little, too late" in a letter to Michael Horowitz, the Inspector General of the Department of Justice.

“We have situations where we’ve discovered that millions of opioid doses were being delivered by distributors in illegal and suspicious circumstances, and the government’s response was either too little or too late,” said McCaskill. “This is a matter of life and death and I want to know whether or not we could have done more.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr