The Cherokee Nation has accused some of the biggest companies in the pharmaceutical and industry of exacerbating the opioid epidemic, alleging they should have prevented rather than profited from the mass distribution of addictive pain pills.
The lawsuit, filed in tribal court Thursday, alleges that drug distributors and pharmacies knowingly or negligently allowed vast amounts of opioids to flow into the black market for their own financial gain, crippling the Cherokee Nation both financially and emotionally.
The suit alleges AmerisourceBergen Corp, Cardinal Health and McKesson Corp.—some of the largest U.S. drug distributors—regularly filed suspicious orders from pharmacies. The pharmacies, CVS Health, Walgreens and Wal-Mart, habitually ignored red flags in questionable prescription presentations that would require further investigation.
The federally recognized sovereign Indian nation based in Oklahoma seeks an injunction to curb the companies' alleged practices that fuel the black market as well as unspecified damages.
The companies "have habitually turned a blind eye to known or knowable problems in their own supply chains" and have created an "environment in which drug diversion can flourish," the complaint said.
Dublin, Ohio-based drug and medical supplies distributor Cardinal Health disputed the lawsuit's allegations, saying the company purchases medications from pharmaceutical manufacturers and ships them only to licensed, regulated pharmacies, clinics and hospitals—not the public. It has systems in place to combat opioid diversion, the company said.
"We intend to vigorously defend ourselves against the plaintiff's mischaracterization of those facts and misunderstanding of the law," the company said in a statement.
Chesterbrook, Pa.-based drug distributor AmerisourceBergen said in a statement that the company is reviewing the lawsuit and it actively monitors each shipment and reports and stops suspicious orders.
Opioid painkillers netted $9.6 billion in sales in 2015, according to IMS Health. More than 33,000 people overdosed on opioids in 2015, up 15% from 28,600 in 2014, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Cardinal, AmerisourceBergen and McKesson account for more than 85% of all revenues from U.S. drug distribution, estimated at $378 billion in 2015, the lawsuit said.
The complaint alleges the pharmacies violated the Cherokee Nation Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act by not training their staff well enough to decipher suspicious prescriptions. The companies also gave bonuses based on the number of prescriptions filled, which would cause more lax oversight, the suit said.
County officials in West Virginia filed a federal lawsuit against pharmacies and drug distributors including AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal and McKesson in February, saying negligent oversight exacerbated the region's opioid epidemic.