Cherokee Nation sues pharmacies, drug distributors over opioid epidemic

The Cherokee Nation filed a lawsuit against pharmacies and drug distributors on Thursday, alleging that the companies have not done their part to curb the opioid epidemic that has gripped the tribal community.

Among the companies named are pharmacies such as Walmart, CVS and Walgreens. Also named are companies that distribute opioid medications to these pharmacies: AmerisourceBergen, McKesson and Cardinal Health.

“The brunt of the epidemic could have been, and should have been, prevented by the defendant companies,” the lawsuit alleges.

The Cherokee Nation has accused the companies of not complying with federal drug regulations, which include keeping detailed information on the medications they sell, protecting pills from theft and refusing to fill “suspicious” prescriptions. The companies “have turned a blind eye,” the lawyers wrote, while opioid pills have fallen into the wrong hands and made their way to the “illicit black market.”

“There’s a very large volume of opioids being distributed in the Cherokee territory — sufficiently large to be shocking,” said Richard Fields, special counsel to the attorney general of the Cherokee Nation.

The Cherokee Nation is suing for “hundreds of millions of dollars” in damages, said Fields, though the lawsuit does not specify a figure. Some of these damages seek compensation for addiction treatment, medical treatment for babies born with opioid dependence, welfare for children whose parents can’t support them and law enforcement efforts to curb the opioid crisis in Cherokee communities.

Although similar cases have taken years to resolve, Fields and his team are aiming for a decision in less than 12 months.

The Cherokee court “prides itself on speed and believes that justice delayed is justice denied,” he said.

According to the CDC, drug overdoses have quadrupled since 1999, hitting hardest among white and Native Americans. Oklahoma, where the Cherokee Nation is based, has ranked among the top states for opioid prescription rates.

This is the first time a tribal court has filed such a lawsuit against opioid distributors, Fields said, but there is recent precedent for these types of cases.

Pharmaceutical distributor McKesson set a record in January when it paid $150 million for failing to “report suspicious orders of pharmaceutical drugs,” the US Department of Justice said in a release. McKesson’s distribution centers in four states were temporarily banned from selling controlled substances to pharmacies.

In December, Cardinal Health paid $34 million in penalties for similar reasons. The following month, it paid an additional $20 million to West Virginia, though the company denied any wrongdoing.

The company maintains its position with this latest case.

“Cardinal Health 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,” Cardinal Health said in a statement, adding that it has a “rigorous system to combat opioid diversion.”

“We’re reviewing the filing now,” AmerisourceBergen said in its own statement. “Beyond reporting and stopping shipment of orders that are determined to be suspicious, we provide daily reports about … every single order of controlled substances we distribute to regulatory and enforcement professionals.”

Similarly, CVS Health said in a statement that it has policies in place “to determine whether a controlled substance prescription was issued for a legitimate medical purpose before filling it.” The company said it is “dedicated to reducing prescription drug abuse and diversion.”

Walgreens declined to comment. The other companies named in the lawsuit did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“When you look at the history of what the (US Drug Enforcement Administration) has been prosecuting, you realize the extraordinary amounts of drugs that are being pumped into our society,” Fields said, adding that the Cherokee Nation’s legal team is not looking to change the laws but simply to enforce them.

“We just want to see these companies change their behavior, follow the law and really do what’s right — not just for the Cherokee Nation but for our country.”