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Cherokee Nation sues pharmaceutical retailers, distributors over opioids

The Cherokee Nation filed a lawsuit against CVS Health, Walgreens, Walmart, and several other pharmaceutical retailers and distributors on April 25 over a prescription opioid epidemic in its community.

The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief, civil penalties, compensatory and punitive damages, restitution, and attorneys fees for alleged violations of the Cherokee Nation Unfair and Deceptive Practices Act. It also accuses the companies of gross negligence, unfair enrichment, and civil conspiracy among others.

According to Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree, the defendants, which include distributors McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen, “knowingly or negligently distributed and dispensed prescription opioid drugs within the Cherokee Nation in a manner that foreseeably injured, and continues to injure, the Cherokee Nation and its citizens.”

“This kind of behavior by Defendants has allowed massive amounts of opioid pills to be diverted from legitimate channels of distribution into the illicit black market in quantities that have fueled the opioid epidemic in the Cherokee Nation,” the lawsuit said.

According to Hembree, the three distribution companies named in the suit account for up to 90 percent of drug distribution revenue in the US, which was $378 billion in 2015.

Prescription opioids like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and fentanyl are classified as Schedule II drugs under the Controlled Substances Act, and their distribution is tightly regulated.

All of the companies  have settled similar lawsuits in recent years with the Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies, regarding the failure to track prescription opioids and their use.

Oklahoma’s Cherokee Nation has had it particularly bad, leading the nation in opioid abuse. According to the lawsuit, more people died of hydrocodone or oxycodone than overdoses from alcohol, methamphetamine, cocaine, heroine, and all other illegal drugs combined between 2007 and 2012.

According to the DEA, over 2.75 billion milligrams of opioids were distributed in Oklahoma in 2015 with about 45 million milligrams distributed in 14 Cherokee Nation counties.

That’s roughly 703 milligrams per citizen, Hembree says. However, that number is likely higher since not every Cherokee Nation citizen takes opioids.

CVS Health, the parent company of CVS Pharmacy, told Stat that the company has “stringent policies, procedures and tools to ensure that our pharmacists properly exercise their corresponding responsibility to determine whether a controlled substance prescription was issued for a legitimate medical purpose before filling it.”

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