Roy Exum: Opiates Scald East Ridge

Friday, January 24, 2020 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Herbert Slatery, Tennessee’s Attorney General, is waging all-out war on Big Pharma, alleging a huge supplier of opioids and 12 of its top customers in Tennessee may be involved in a mammoth case of drug trafficking and racketeering. Two of those customers, Food City and Walgreens, just surfaced when the Knoxville News-Sentinel successfully brought a lawsuit to make the court records public. Perhaps you can fathom the enormity of the worst drug epidemic in our nation’s history when it was just learned the Walgreens in East Ridge – population 21,216 – was shipped 1.7 million doses of opioids in one year. Another Walgreens, this one in Kingston, pop. 52,627, was shipped 1.6 million doses.

The Walgreens orders pale when compared to three Food City pharmacies in the same vicinity of Knoxville.

During a six-year span, the Food City in Bearden and two other Food City pharmacies within the radius of notorious overprescribing Dr. Frank McNiel, were shipped 28 million opiates by a Pennsylvania supplier, AmerisourceBergen. In just one month – January 2009 -- the Bearden Food City alone – took delivery on 201,700 opiates – five times the maximum Food City officials set as the threshold.

As one AmerisourceBergin email read: “What the hell is TN doing? Self-destruction.” While the most flagrant areas of prescription abuse were Knoxville and the Tri-Cities, deaths from opioid overdoses across the state were a record high in 2018 with 1,837 and, in the first nine months of 2019, that number had already been surpassed. The reason in one word: fentanyl, a drug that is 100 times stronger than morphine. When combined with the black market and heroin, it is today the deadliest substance available in America.

While opioid overdoses have declined 2.2 percent nationally, the bigger victories are in states like Ohio (-12.4%), Pennsylvania (-11.5%), Michigan (-10.3%), Florida (-6.6%), and Kentucky (-8.2%), this tabulated from March 2018 to March 2019. But in Tennessee, where over 12 million prescriptions were written over a two-year span, deaths have risen 7.3% during the same time frame. In eight years, AmerisourceBergin shipped enough opiates to Tennessee that would supply every person living in the state with 580 doses.

After more than 9,100 deaths between 2013 and 2018, the shift has moved towards opioid addiction, called opioid use syndrome (OUD). Federal and state monies are becoming more available for the treatment of those who may relapse and medication-assisted treatment (MAT) that lessens the horrors of withdrawal is becoming more available.

Food City, with an excellent reputation, offered this statement: “(Food City) is aware of data regarding prescriptions filled almost a decade ago by one of its stores. For years, (Food City) has committed to proactively working with experts in drug enforcement and pharmacy best practices to assess and refine dispensing practices at its more than 100 pharmacies," it continued. "(Food City) also utilized a robust third-party review and audit program at its pharmacies. The company has been and remains committed to the safety and health of the communities it proudly serves."

A statement for AmerisourceBergin: “AmerisourceBergen denies intentionally profiteering off Tennessee’s opioid epidemic. The allegations made in the Tennessee Attorney General’s lawsuit against AmerisourceBergen are exactly that — allegations, many of which are demonstrably untrue,” a statement read. “AmerisourceBergen takes its reporting responsibilities seriously and reports directly to the (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration) the quantity and receiving pharmacy of each order it ships of opioids.

“Tellingly absent from Tennessee’s lawsuit is the accusation that AmerisourceBergen ever shipped opioid products to pharmacies lacking an active DEA registration and an active license with the state board of pharmacy,” it continued. 

"It is in fact important to note that many of the pharmacies called out in the complaint for excessive opioid sales are still licensed by the state even with our reporting of suspicious orders," a spokesman said, noting the state is putting distributors in an "ambiguous and opaque" regulatory role.

According to the Nashville Tennessean, “In Nashville, deaths attributed to fentanyl tripled since 2016, according to the new Metro Health report. Fentanyl was linked to an average of 24 deaths per month in 2019. The report states total suspected overdoses increased from a monthly average of 333 in 2018 to 361 in 2019, and nonfatal overdoses that resulted in a trip to the emergency room rose from a monthly average of 64 to 113.”

* * *

It cannot be overstated that Food City and Walgreens are among Chattanooga’s most respected and trusted companies and neither have been charged with any wrongdoing. Attorney General Slattery is attaching his complaint to a lawsuit in Knox County Circuit Court.

According to the Attorney General’s office, “The 230-page complaint reveals how Amerisource, one of the largest distributors in the country, shipped hundreds of millions of prescription opioids to Tennessee pharmacies for years, even when it knew the drugs were being abused and sold on the street. These actions also resulted in a public nuisance, which is asserted in the complaint. To read the complaint, click here:


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