Executives of one of the largest drug distributors in the United States circulated rhymes and emails mocking the ‘hillbillies’ who became addicted to opioid pain relievers even as the company poured hundreds of millions of pills into it. parts of the Appalachians at the heart of America’s opioid epidemic.
The lawsuit of drug companies accused of illegally flooding West Virginia with opioids learned last week that senior executives at AmerisourceBergen, the 10th largest company in the United States by revenue, routinely denigrated communities affected by the disease. the worst drug epidemic in the country’s history.
An email in 2011 contained a rhyme built around a “poor climber” named Jed who “barely kept his habit fed”. According to the verse, “Jed” is traveling to Florida to buy “Hillbilly Heroin”, the nickname for OxyContin, the drug manufactured by Purdue Pharma that has sparked an epidemic that has claimed more than 500,000 lives.
Florida was well known in the 2000s for lax regulation of pain clinics where doctors illegally prescribed and dispensed large amounts of opioids to what the verse calls a “Pillbillie gang.”
Another rhyme described Kentucky as “OxyContinville” due to heavy drug use in poor rural areas in the eastern part of the state.
When Kentucky introduced new regulations to curb the distribution of opioids, an AmerisourceBergen executive wrote in a widely circulated email: [sic] must have learned to read 🙂 ”.
Another email contained a breakfast cereal box mockup with the word “smack” under the words “OxyContin for kids.”
One of those who wrote and spread derogatory emails was Chris Zimmerman, the senior executive responsible for enforcing AmerisourceBergen’s legal obligation to stop shipments of opioids to pharmacies suspected of distributing suspicious amounts of drugs, often in concert with corrupt doctors who have made it illegal to write small fortunes. prescriptions.
After Florida cracked down on pill mills in 2011, Zimmerman emailed his colleagues. “Watch out for George and Alabama,” he wrote, “there will be a maximum exodus of Pillbillies heading north.”
Zimmerman said at trial that he regretted circulating the mocking rhyme, but that it was “a reflection of the environment at the time.” He claimed the emails were just a way to express his frustration as the company struggled to keep opioids out of the wrong hands. Zimmerman said the corporate culture was “of the highest caliber”.
Paul Farrell, a West Virginia county attorney, told the executive the emails reflected a culture of contempt.
“This is a role model for these people charged with protecting our community, and they are circulating emails denigrating hillbillies,” he said, according to the Mountain State Spotlight.
The town of Huntington and the surrounding County of Cabell are suing AmerisourceBergen and two other large distributors, McKesson and Cardinal Health, in a series of federal cases over the pharmaceutical industry’s push to sell narcotic pain relievers that created the opioid epidemic.
This is the first case to go to a full trial after AmerisourceBergen, McKesson and two other companies agreed to pay $ 260 million to settle another Ohio case two years ago .
The two local authorities in West Virginia accuse the distributors of putting profit before lives and of making Cabell County the “zero point” of the epidemic. A data expert told the trial that over nine years, the three distributors have administered about 100 million doses of opioids to Cabell County – which has just 90,000 residents.
Farrell told Zimmerman he failed to follow company policies to report suspicious orders to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and to suspend deliveries while they were investigated. Zimmerman claimed that if the company had stopped deliveries, it would have hurt patients who needed the drugs.
“We are a business, we are not an enforcement agency and we are not a regulatory agency,” he said.
Drug distributors shipped 1.1 billion opioid pain relievers to West Virginia between 2006 and 2014, even as the state’s overdose rate reached the highest level in the United States.
In 2017, AmerisourceBergen paid $ 16 million to settle a West Virginia lawsuit over opioid shipments, but did not admit wrongdoing. That same year, McKesson paid a record fine of $ 150 million after the DEA accused him of breaking the law.
Critics, including DEA officials, accused the companies of viewing the fines as “the cost of doing business” and of continuing as before.