HUNTINGTON — A federal judge in Cleveland, Ohio, partially lifted Monday an order that had sealed extensive opioid-related data compiled by the federal government, paving the way for the information to be released to the public for the first time.
U.S. District Judge Dan Polster, who is overseeing about 1,800 lawsuits filed by local governments seeking damages from drug manufacturers and distributors for the opioid crisis, lifted the ban Monday on all the data collected by the Drug Enforcement Administration previous to Dec. 31, 2012.
A preliminary report on the data released by The Washington Post on Tuesday says from 2006 through 2012, more than 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pain pills flooded the country. The Post reports West Virginia received the highest concentration of pills per person per year, with 66.5. Mingo County was among the counties with the highest number of pills shipped per person at 203. West Virginia also had the highest opioid death rate from 2006 through 2012.
While the data obtained after 2012 remains under seal, Polster is expected to rule later this month on what of that data should be released.
The judge's order gives the go-ahead for the immediate release of six years of DEA data that will show the number of prescription opioids delivered to every pharmacy in the U.S. The information also identifies the companies that sold and delivered the pills.
HD Media, which owns The Herald-Dispatch in Huntington and the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and The Washington Post intervened in court to seek release of the prescription opioid sales data. The drug companies and the DEA spent more than a year fighting to keep the prescription opioid numbers shielded from the public.
"This is an extraordinary victory for people across the country whose communities were inundated by huge quantities of addictive prescription opioids and for an independent free press committed to digging deep to uncover the truth," said Suzanne Weise, a Morgantown lawyer representing HD Media. "Poor, old and young were the targets of opioid manufacturers, distributors and retail pharmacies whose profits soared while hundreds of thousands died from overdoses, and the DEA failed to use the data to suppress the epidemic."
Doug Reynolds, managing partner of HD Media, also hailed the legal victory. Reporters Courtney Hessler of The Herald-Dispatch and Eric Eyre of the Gazette-Mail have worked on the story. Eyre received a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for earlier reporting on shipments of opioids to West Virginia.
"I am so proud of Courtney and Eric's pursuit of truth in this case," Reynolds said. "You can't fix a problem until you understand its origins."
The data was turned over in three federal lawsuits filed against drug distributors and pharmacies in three counties, including Cabell County in West Virginia and Summit and Cuyahoga counties in Ohio. The drug companies named in the lawsuits are accused of oversupplying communities with opioid painkillers, which is believed to have started the opioid epidemic.
Polster's order comes after a June ruling by the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals that said Polster abused his power in issuing a blanket protective order prohibiting the public release of the data. The court said Polster should revisit the protective order, selectively choose what should be sealed and lift the blanket order.
The case went to the appeals court after Polster shot down media attempts to retrieve the data made in court filings by HD Media and The Washington Post. The two newspaper companies appealed his decision to the 6th Circuit and won.
The newspapers had argued public interest in viewing the data outweighed the government's interest in secrecy.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that Cabell County averaged 98 pills per person per year, while Kanawha County was at 67. In some southern counties of West Virginia, Logan County averaged 179 pills per person per year; McDowell and Wyoming counties, 107; Lincoln County, 58; and Wayne County, 46. Lawrence County, Ohio, averaged 60, and Boyd County, Kentucky, 107. Pike County, Kentucky, averaged 146.
Just six companies distributed 75% of those 76 billion pain pills: McKesson Corp., Walgreens, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, CVS and Walmart. Only three manufactured 88% of the opioids, including SpecGx, a subsidiary of Mallinckrodt; Actavis Pharma; and Par Pharmaceutical, a subsidiary of Endo Pharmaceuticals, The Washington Post said.
The number of pills increased by over half, from about 8.4 billion in 2006 to 12.6 billion by the end of 2012, the data showed.
The "Big Three" distributors named in the Cabell County lawsuit, as well as hundreds of other cases, are in the top four of distributors. McKesson Corp. distributed 18.4% — 14,107,192,489 — of the 76 billion pain pills; Cardinal Health, 14% — 10,709,959,627 pills; and AmerisourceBergen, 11% — 8,952,844,625 pills — over the seven-year period.
In a joint statement released Monday, the National Prescription Opiate Litigation MDL Plaintiffs' Executive Committee co-leads Huntington-based Paul T. Farrell Jr. of Greene Ketchum, Farrell, Bailey & Tweel LLP; Paul J. Hanly Jr. of Simmons Hanly Conroy; and Joe Rice of Motley Rice LLC., said the ruling was a positive and transparent step forward.
"Unearthing this data for the benefit of the public is part of the ongoing litigation process that started over a year and a half ago and is the beginning of the revelations to come around the role we believe the defendants had in fueling this epidemic. The American people deserve transparency, and that's exactly what this order has given them," they said.
Polster has ordered the sides in the case to meet and agree by July 25 on a new protective order for data collected after Jan. 1, 2013, and suspicious order reports, which would show flagged orders made by buyers.