As part of Mississippi’s multi-pronged approach to combating the opioid addiction, Attorney General Jim Hood announced Tuesday an investigation into three national opioid distributors.

Hood, who joins attorneys general from 32 other states in this effort, said he’s looking into whether distributors Amerisource Bergen, Cardinal Health and McKeeson Medical Supply illegally marketed, sold or distributed prescription opioids.

“A distributor of drugs is required to notify DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) if they’re shipping a whole bunch of drugs to a pharmacy somewhere, like in the state of Mississippi, which is in unusual numbers. They have a duty with suspicious transactions just like the banks do,” Hood said. “So now we’re checking into whether they have done their duty under the law.”

Hood has sent letters to nine distributors in Mississippi, and said he’s waiting to see whether these companies provided notice to the DEA.

Other states already have taken legal action against drug distributors. In March, attorneys in West Virginia, which has the highest opioid overdose rate in the nation, filed lawsuits in federal court on behalf of two counties. That suit targets the same three distributors Hood is investigating, which together distribute 85 percent of the country’s prescriptions.

Earlier this year, the West Virginia attorney general’s office settled lawsuits filed against opioid distributors for violating the state’s consumer protection laws. Cardinal Health agreed to pay $20 million and AmerisourceBergen $16 million. Both companies denied wrongdoing, according to The Washington Post.

Like West Virginia’s attorney general, Hood said he’s also seeking millions in reimbursements for the rapid devastation opioids have caused in Mississippi communities. Between 2013 and 2016, Mississippi had 481 drug overdose deaths related to opioids. And between 2012 and 2016, heroin cases initiated by the Bureau of Narcotics increased 300 percent.

“I was DA when we had the crack epidemic in the early ’90s, when we had the meth epidemic in the early 2000s. But I haven’t seen a drug affect such a large cross-section of the population (as opioids).”

Hood said he attributes this to the fact that unlike other drug categories, most opioid addictions begin with a prescription. In 2016, pharmacists dispensed approximately 201 million doses of prescription opioids in Mississippi, which equates to 70 doses for every man, woman and child in the state. As a result, last year Mississippi ranked fifth nationally for opioid prescriptions per capita, according to the Bureau of Narcotics.

The investigation into opioid distributors follows a lawsuit the state filed against 17 opioids manufacturers in December 2015. According to the suit, the companies lied to Mississippi’s Division of Medicaid, doctors and the public about how addictive opioids are in an attempt to boost profits.

“Now, we need to determine if the distributors also contributed to this growing epidemic,” Hood said.

That lawsuit is currently pending in Hinds County Court.

In another facet of Mississippi’s fight against the opioid crisis, Hood also announced Tuesday that he and 36 other state attorneys general had sent a letter to the health insurance industry’s main trade group, urging its members to reevaluate drug coverage policies they say are contributing to the opioid crisis.

The letter follows a story from ProPublica and The New York Times on Sunday which reported that many insurance companies limit access to less addictive, but more expensive, pain medications while making generic opioids, which are less expensive, more accessible.

“Hopefully these insurance companies will do that. It would be a big step if they do,” Hood said.

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.