Just a year after announcing his investigation into opioid distributors, Attorney General Jim Hood has sued three of the country’s biggest ones, arguing their negligence flooded the state with more drugs than Mississippians could reasonably use.

The suit, filed Thursday in Hinds County Circuit Court, alleges that Cardinal Health, Inc., McKesson Corporation, and AmerisourceBergen Corporation failed to monitor, detect, investigate, refuse and report suspicious orders. All of this is a violation of the Mississippi Consumer Protection Act.

“In 2017 alone, Mississippi had enough opioids supplied to provide 61 pills for every man, woman, and child in the state,” Hood said. “If these distributors were attending to their supply rates, they would realize that amount of pills is way too large for a state the size of Mississippi.”

In 2017 — when the state saw in increase of overdose deaths, many attributed to opiates — over 3.3 million opioid prescriptions were filled in Mississippi. That number corresponds to 501,048 dosage units every day for 2017 or approximately a two-month supply of opioids for every Mississippi resident, including children.

“It’s time that the unscrupulous marketing practices of the opioid distributors was addressed. Their deceptive practices have cost the lives of Mississippians and thousands of others in America,” said Marshall Fisher, the commissioner of the Department of Public Safety.

Hood said he is seeking to curtail the flow of opioids being shipped into the state and then diverted to illegal markets, making them accessible to people who don’t have a prescription. The complaint alleges that if these distributors had closely monitored their prescriptions, the opioid epidemic would not have reached crisis level.

“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 when he announced the investigation into the companies in September of last year.

Other states already have taken legal action against drug distributors. Last year, 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 that 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 investigated by the Bureau of Narcotics increased 300 percent.

“I support utilizing every resource of the State to combat this epidemic,” said John Dowdy, director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics. “These and other lawsuits brought by the State could result in awards that would create a funding stream for law enforcement and treatment efforts across the state.”

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. That lawsuit is pending in Hinds County Chancery Court.

In 2017, Gov. Phil Bryant assembled a task force to make recommendations for combating Mississippi’s nascent opioid epidemic. Bryant did not respond to a request for a comment on this article.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

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.