Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the three largest distributors of prescription opioids in Washington state, arguing that they failed to alert law enforcement of suspicious opioid orders, and illegally shipped those orders into Washington for years, and contributed to the illegal supply of opioids, fueling the state’s opioid epidemic.
Ferguson’s lawsuit, filed today in King County Superior Court, asserts that McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc., and AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp. made billions of dollars feeding the opioid epidemic, shipping huge amounts of oxycodone, fentanyl, hydrocodone and other prescription opioids into the state even when they knew or should have known those drugs were likely to end up in the hands of drug dealers and addicts.
Opioid distributors are legally required to monitor the size and frequency of prescription opioid orders to identify suspicious orders that could be diverted into the illegal drug market. Distributors are required to stop these suspicious shipments and report them to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
Instead, McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen have faced repeated actions from the DEA for continuously failing to stop and report suspicious opioid shipments, paying hundreds of millions in fines for their failure to follow the rules.
“We are woefully under-resourced when it comes to treatment. The people who are responsible for this epidemic should be paying for it,” Ferguson said. “We are going to hold these companies accountable and get more money into our communities for treatment.”
McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen supply the majority of opioids coming into Washington state. They are listed in the top 15 of the Fortune 500 list based on 2017 revenue.
Between 2006 and 2014, these three companies supplied more than 2 billion opioid pills to Washington.
In 2014, for example, McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen shipped enough opioids to Pend Orielle County to supply every single resident with dozens of pills. In 2009, McKesson alone supplied enough for dozens of pills for every resident of the county. The specific shipment numbers are currently under seal.
The DEA requires distributors to monitor orders, looking for specific factors that can identify suspicious shipments. Those factors include increases in quantity and frequency, as well as changes in ordering patterns.
When distributors identify suspicious orders, they are required to stop the shipment and notify the DEA. Ferguson asserts that, even when their internal monitoring should have flagged suspicious orders, the companies shipped them anyway without notifying the DEA.
Based on shipping data, a conservative calculation suggests these companies may have shipped more than 250,000 suspicious orders into Washington state between 2006 and 2014. A less conservative calculation puts that number more than 3 ½ times that high, at nearly a million.
McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen have faced multiple actions by the DEA and others for failing to monitor and stop suspicious orders. McKesson has faced more than $160 million in fines, with the DEA determining that the company filled “hundreds of suspicious orders placed by pharmacies participating in illicit internet schemes, but failed to report the orders to DEA.”
Cardinal has been fined five times for a total of nearly $100 million since 2008, while DEA suspended AmerisourceBergen’s distributor licenses in 2007 for failing to adequately monitor and report suspicious orders.
The DEA noted that, between June 2008 and May 2013, one McKesson distribution facility “processed more than 1.6 million orders for controlled substances . . . , but reported just 16 orders as suspicious.”