For the first time ever, the public can see details of who manufactured pain pills and which pharmacies stocked them, revealing exactly what drug companies knew as they flooded communities with opioids that fueled a national epidemic.
After a yearlong court battle, The Washington Post and HD Media, which owns the Charleston Gazette-Mail, won public access to a key Drug Enforcement Administration database in July.
The database, which The Washington Post released publicly last week, details 380 million times between 2006 and 2012 that manufacturers sold opioids to pharmacies, physicians or other distributors — including shipments of more than 3.3 billion pills to New York alone.
The Washington Post narrowed the data to oxycodone and hydrocodone pills because research has shown those common prescriptions were the painkillers most often diverted into the black market.
In Steuben County, 2.7 million pain pills were sent to pharmacies and physicians in 2006 and the shipments grew each year after that, reaching 3.6 million in 2012, a GateHouse Media analysis of the data shows. Chemung County saw even greater growth: Manufacturers sent 2.1 million pills in 2006 and 4.3 million in 2012. Schuyler County received about 537,000 pills in 2006 and 676,000 in 2012.
Minor differences emerge after accounting for population over that seven-year stretch. The shipments averaged out to 36 pills per person each year in Chemung County, 33 pills per person in Schuyler and 31 pills per person in Steuben. All three were below the national average of 36 pills per person but above the state average of 30. The top 10 counties in the United States all saw annual rates of more than 155 pills per person.
The government and drug industry opposed the release of the data and won the initial court case to block it, but the news organizations prevailed on appeal.
The media groups also convinced the court to unseal depositions and internal documents, such as emails, that show companies’ internal push to increase sales even while opioid-related deaths soared.
Nationally, about 144,000 people died from opioid overdoses between 2006 and 2012 — including 8,230 people in New York — according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An additional 211,000 people — 15,256 in New York — died in the five years since then.
The death rate here usually hovers just below the national average. Nonetheless, the frequency of fatal overdoses has tripled in the last decade, from 5.6 deaths per 100,000 people in 2008 to 16.1 deaths in 2017. It grew by almost half between 2015 and 2016.
Yet, today’s death rate is still just one-third of the rate seen in West Virginia, which went from having one of the nation’s lowest rates to its highest because of the epidemic.
Lawsuits related to drug companies’ role in those deaths already are the largest in Amerian history, with settlements surpassing those made with tobacco companies in the 1980s.
Some of the largest drug companies already have paid more than $1 billion in federal fines and even more to states and counties who sued. Exact deals remain to be reached with most filers.
The State of New York settled with Cardinal Health in 2005 and again in 2016 after finding the Ohio-based company had failed to report suspicious orders to the Drug Enforcement Agency and did not follow proper protocols to flag certain orders for additional review.
But at least one pharmaceutical trade association executive appeared to blame the federal Drug Enforcement Association for the epidemic.
“The DEA has been the only entity to have all of this data at their fingertips, and it could have used the information to consistently monitor the supply of opioids and when appropriate, proactively identify bad actors,” said John Parker, senior vice president of the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, in an email to GateHouse Media.
Healthcare Distribution Alliance is the national trade association representing pharmaceutical distributors. Parker emphasized that HDA members followed rules requiring them to report sales to federal officials.
“Unlike the DEA,” Parker said, “distributors have no authority to stop physicians from writing prescriptions, nor can they take unilateral action to halt pharmacies’ ability to dispense medication.”
The Post reported that oxycodone and hydrocodone pills accounted for three-quarters of all opioid shipments to pharmacies over the seven years of tracking. The newspaper released the original data, as well as an easy-to-use search tool, writing that they want “to help the public understand the impact of years of prescription pill shipments on their communities.”