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.”