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‘They Failed in Their Most Fundamental Duties:’ Vermont Attorney General Files Suit Against Pharmaceutical Distributors

The new case alleges two distributors failed to properly monitor the flow of opioid painkillers into Vermont or take steps to reduce suspected misuse of pills early-on

The consumer protection division of the Vermont attorney general’s office filed a lawsuit Tuesday alleging two pharmaceutical distributors profited off pills that got people hooked, helping fuel the nation’s opioid addiction crisis.

“Our state has been devastated as a result of this opiate crisis,” said Attorney General T.J. Donovan, D-Vermont, in a press conference announcing the filing of the suit.

In the new complaint filed in the Chittenden Superior Court, Vermont alleges McKesson and Cardinal Health failed to responsibly monitor the flow of opioid painkillers into Vermont, and didn’t notify regulators about sales numbers that would indicate widespread misuse of the pills.

Donovan is seeking monetary damages and what he calls “corporate accountability,” claiming the companies put profits above human lives.

“They drove up demand, when they were supposed to raise the warning flag that too many pills were coming into Vermont,” Donovan alleged in the announcement. “They failed in their most fundamental duties to protect Vermonters.”

The suit is separate from a pending state case against OxyContin’s manufacturer, Purdue Pharma. In that complaint, the state claims the company was aggressive and misleading in its marketing of the prescription painkiller, leading to high abuse and addiction rates.

Last week, a Chittenden Superior Court judge denied a motion from Purdue Pharma requesting the dismissal of the state’s case against it.

McKesson and Cardinal Health are likely to also use court filings to try to have the suit thrown out.

In general statements on their websites, both McKesson and Cardinal Heath say they care deeply about the impacts opioid misuse have had on the country, and are committed to doing what they can—along with other stakeholders—to help solve a complex national public health care problem.

Late Tuesday, a national trade association called the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, whose members include McKesson and Cardinal Health, sent a written statement to necn, responding to the filing of the lawsuit in Burlington.

The statement from John Parker, the trade group’s senior vice president of communications, said in part, “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. Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation.”

Distributors have pushed back strongly against prior claims that they have any influence over consumer demand for pharmaceuticals, describing themselves as primarily logistics experts who ensure medicines are properly delivered to pharmacies and providers’ offices—with reports on all opioid shipments sent to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

Liz McDougal is in long-term recovery from substance use disorder, and now provides coaching to others seeking recovery—through the Turning Point Center of Central Vermont, which bases McDougal out of the emergency department of the Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin.

McDougal aims to help others take the early steps toward finding resources that can point them to recovery.

The recovery coach welcomed news that the lawsuit was being filed Tuesday, because she said after a car wreck, her prescription painkillers ended up consuming her—leading to a long battle with heroin.

“It was just like any other time I went to the doctor and got a pill,” McDougal recalled. “I thought this was going to make me feel better.”

McDougal said she is now optimistic that greater availability of resources and community-wide conversations aimed at ending the stigma around substance use disorder will help more people find long-term recovery.

Sara Moses, another Turning Point Center recovery coach, is focused on helping people enter the early stages of recovery in Brattleboro area.

She and McDougal indicated a hope that some good can come out of the lawsuits, in the form of better consumer protection.

“There’s got to be accountability,” Moses told necn. “They’re always telling us as addicts and people in recovery, ‘You’ve got to take responsibility for your actions,’ and [the pharmaceutical industry] should be held to those same standards.”

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