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Lancaster County sues drug distributors after rise in overdose deaths

Lancaster County filed a federal lawsuit March 7, alleging that three major drug companies should have noticed – and stopped – “suspicious” orders of opioids in South Carolina.
Lancaster County filed a federal lawsuit March 7, alleging that three major drug companies should have noticed – and stopped – “suspicious” orders of opioids in South Carolina. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Lancaster County saw a 400 percent increase in drug overdose deaths in 2017. Now the county plans to do something about that.

Lancaster County filed a federal lawsuit March 7, alleging that three major drug companies should have noticed – and stopped – “suspicious” orders of opioids in South Carolina.

The three companies are Amerisourcebergen Drug Corporation, Cardinal Health and McKesson Corporation. They account for 85 percent to 90 percent of wholesale drug distribution in the United States, according to the Lancaster County suit.

The Lancaster County Coroner’s Office reported 25 overdose deaths in the county in 2017. Of those deaths, 18 involved the potent opiate fentanyl, which is about 50 times stronger than heroin.

Lancaster County saw only five overdose deaths in 2016.

Charles Whetstone, the lead attorney representing Lancaster County in the suit, said his firm has reached out to many counties. He said it is representing three other South Carolina counties – Horry, Dillon and Marion counties – in similar suits.

John Weaver, Lancaster County attorney, said the week before the County Council discussed the possibility of the lawsuit, three residents died from drug overdoses.

“I think it’s unquestioned that the use of those opioid drugs has gone beyond usefulness into excessiveness,” he said. “I think there are counties and municipalities in the state, including Lancaster County, that have seen the effects of excessive opioid prescriptions.

“And the more counties and municipalities that get on the bandwagon to apply pressure, the better off our citizens and the whole nation will be if there is some restriction placed on it,” Weaver said.

The county is suing the drug companies for damages it says it incurred through spending on services including law enforcement, prosecutions, emergency response services, public utilities and property damage.

“There are drugs out there who provide dangerous conditions, not only for the deceased of course, but for the EMS and the coroner,” Weaver said.

Representatives from Healthcare Distribution Alliance, the national trade association that represents all three drug companies, said in a statement that distributors already report every single order to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“The misuse and abuse of prescription opioids is a complex public health challenge that requires a collaborative and systemic response that engages all stakeholders,” said the statement from John Parker, senior vice president at Healthcare Distribution Alliance.

“Given our role, the idea that distributors are responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and is regulated,” Parker said. “Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation.”

Weaver said it’s too early to say if the county will win any money. But he said if it did, the money would likely be put toward educational training and the safety of public safety personnel.

“It’s somewhat of an uphill battle,” he said.

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