The Chero­kee Na­tion


al­leged in a law­suit that drug dis­trib­u­tors and phar­ma­cies flooded com­mu­ni­ties with ad­dic­tive pain pills.

Lawyers for the Chero­kee Na­tion opened a new line of at­tack against the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­dus­try Thurs­day, fil­ing a law­suit in tribal court that ac­cuses the na­tion’s six top drug dis­trib­u­tors and phar­ma­cies of flood­ing com­mu­ni­ties in Ok­la­homa with hundreds of mil­lions of highly ad­dic­tive pain pills.

The suit al­leges that the com­pa­nies vi­o­lated sov­er­eign Chero­kee laws by fail­ing to pre­vent the di­ver­sion of pain pills to the black mar­ket, prof­it­ing from the grow­ing opi­oid epi­demic and dec­i­mat­ing com­mu­ni­ties across the na­tion’s 14 coun­ties in the state.

“De­fen­dants turned a blind eye to the prob­lem of opi­oid di­ver­sion and prof­ited from the sale of pre­scrip­tion opi­oids to the cit­i­zens of the Chero­kee Na­tion in quan­ti­ties that far ex­ceeded the num­ber of pre­scrip­tions that could rea­son­ably have been used for le­git­i­mate med­i­cal pur­poses,” the suit says.

By fil­ing the suit in tribal court, lawyers for the Chero­kee Na­tion said they hope to gain quicker ac­cess to in­ter­nal cor­po­rate records that could show what the com­pa­nies knew about the di­ver­sion of pain pills on In­dian lands in north­east­ern Ok­la­homa. It is the first time an In­dian na­tion has filed suit against com­pa­nies for the dam­age done by pow­er­ful pain pills such as oxy­codone and hy­drocodone.

The suit names the three largest drug dis­trib­u­tors in the United States: McKes­son, Car­di­nal Health and AmerisourceBer­gen, which to­gether con­trol roughly 85 per­cent of pre­scrip­tion drug distribution in the coun­try. Also named in the suit are some of the big­gest names in the re­tail drug busi­ness: CVS, Wal­greens and Walmart.

In a state­ment, Car­di­nal Health said that the com­pany “is con­fi­dent that the facts and the law are on our side, and we in­tend to vig­or­ously de­fend our­selves against the plain­tiff ’s mis­char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of those facts and mis­un­der­stand­ing of the law.”

AmerisourceBer­gen, in a state­ment of its own, said it was re­view­ing the law­suit. “The is­sue of opi­oid abuse is a com­plex one that spans the full health­care spec­trum, in­clud­ing man­u­fac­tur­ers, whole­salers, in­sur­ers, pre­scribers, phar­ma­cists and reg­u­la­tory and en­force­ment agen­cies. All of th­ese en­ti­ties must work to­gether to en­sure medicine is avail­able, as ap­pro­pri­ate and pre­scribed, to pa­tients, while also lim­it­ing and pre­vent­ing abuse.”

A spokesman for Wal­greens said the com­pany does not com­ment on pend­ing lit­i­ga­tion. A spokesman for CVS said the com­pany “is com­mit­ted to the high­est stan­dards of ethics and busi­ness prac­tices, in­clud­ing com­ply­ing with all fed­eral and state laws gov­ern­ing the dis­pens­ing of con­trolled sub­stance pre­scrip­tions, and is ded­i­cated to re­duc­ing pre­scrip­tion drug abuse and di­ver­sion.”

The other com­pa­nies did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

The Chero­kee law­suit comes as coun­ties and states con­front the con­se­quences of a grow­ing pre­scrip­tion opi­oid epi­demic that has claimed nearly 180,000 lives since 2000.

Last month, seven coun­ties in West Vir­ginia, which has the high­est pre­scrip­tion drug over­dose rate in the na­tion, filed suits against many of the same cor­po­ra­tions. Those suits ac­cuse the com­pa­nies of cre­at­ing a pub­lic haz­ard by ship­ping large amounts of drugs into the state and seek bil­lions of dol­lars in re­im­burse­ments for the eco­nomic toll the drugs have taken in the heart of Ap­palachia.

In Ok­la­homa, pre­scrip­tion opi­oid abuse has been par­tic­u­larly per­ni­cious, Chero­kee of­fi­cials said. The mem­bers of the na­tion, which en­dured the forced re­moval of its peo­ple be­tween 1830 and 1850 from the South­east dur­ing what is known as the Trail of Tears, are more prone to ad­dic­tion than other pop­u­la­tions, ac­cord­ing to stud­ies cited by the of­fi­cials.

“Today, we are fac­ing an­other chal­lenge, a plague that has been set upon the Chero­kee peo­ple by th­ese cor­po­ra­tions,” said Todd Hem­bree, at­tor­ney gen­eral for the Chero­kees. “Their main goal is profit, and this scourge has cost lives and the Chero­kee Na­tion mil­lions.”

Bill John Baker, prin­ci­pal chief of the Chero­kees, added that “tribal na­tions have sur­vived dis­ease, re­moval from our home­lands, ter­mi­na­tion and other ad­ver­si­ties, and still we pros­pered. How­ever, I fear the opi­oid epi­demic is emerg­ing as the next great chal­lenge of our mod­ern era.”

Hem­bree has re­tained a team of lawyers to sue the drug com­pa­nies and phar­ma­cies. The suit al­leges that the firms cre­ated a pub­lic nui­sance, pur­sued un­fair and de­cep­tive prac­tices and en­gaged in a civil con­spir­acy that led to an unchecked pub­lic health cri­sis.

Hem­bree and the lawyers said that the drug dis­trib­u­tors and phar­ma­cies knew or should have known that the amounts of drugs they were send­ing and dis­pens­ing to the Chero­kee Na­tion were sus­pi­cious.

In 2015, the law­suit says, nearly 845 mil­lion mil­ligrams of opi­oids were dis­trib­uted in the 14 coun­ties that make up the Chero­kee Na­tion. That is enough to pro­vide ev­ery adult and child with 955 5mg pills — one of the most com­monly pre­scribed doses of the drug.

“Th­ese de­fen­dants re­ally had the abil­ity to limit the num­ber of deaths and the level of ad­dic­tion if they just fol­lowed the law,” said Richard Fields, a lawyer hired by the Chero­kees.

Fields and lawyer Wil­liam Oh­le­meyer, who rep­re­sented the com­pany for­merly known as Philip Mor­ris in to­bacco law­suits two decades ago, said the flood of opi­oids into Ok­la­homa has torn apart fam­i­lies and cost the Chero­kees hundreds of mil­lions of dol­lars. They said the cri­sis has re­sulted in in­creased spend­ing on law en­force­ment, med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties, drug treat­ment cen­ters and fos­ter and adop­tion pro­grams.

“We have a gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren who are liv­ing in chaos,” said Nikki Baker-Li­more, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of child wel­fare for the Chero­kee Na­tion. “The chil­dren are our tribe’s fu­ture, and with­out them, we can’t go on. This just isn’t fair.”

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