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HUNTINGTON - The Cabell County Commission on Thursday filed a lawsuit against drug firms in an effort to recoup money lost due to the substance abuse epidemic in the area.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court against drug wholesalers AmerisourceBergen Drug Co., Cardinal Health Inc., McKesson Corp. and H.D. Smith Wholesale Drug Co. Also named in the suit are CVS, Rite Aid, Wal-Mart, Kroger and Walgreens.

According to a complaint filed by Paul Farrell Jr., the lawsuit alleges the companies are known to have sold more than 40 million doses of opioid pain medication in Cabell County between 2007 and 2012 while the county's population was 96,319, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

The suit is seeking damages and reimbursement for "the costs associated with past efforts to eliminate the hazards to public health and safety."

A similar lawsuit also was filed Thursday by Farrell against 16 companies on behalf of the Kanawha County Commission. Farrell expects at least five additional lawsuits will be filed by other commissions in the future, including Boone, Logan, Wayne, Fayette and Wyoming counties.

The counties join a handful of municipalities that have filed or have announced intentions to file lawsuits against drug firms and pharmacies after the successful $36 million settlement of a West Virginia lawsuit alleging similar claims.

Unlike many of those lawsuits, Farrell's strategy was to file directly in federal court, rather than add a West Virginia resident and file in state court.

"What we are attempting to do is go to the source and heart of the problem, which is the number and volume of pills," he said. "We can't arrest our way out of the problem, and we can't shut down pill mills effectively enough to control the epidemic."

In January, the commission declared the distribution of pain medications in the county a public nuisance under West Virginia State Code and hired the law firm of Greene, Ketchum, Farrell, Bailey & Tweel to pursue legal action against those in the chain of distribution. The firm will work on a contingency basis, taking 30 percent of any damages that may be won but not charging the county if no damages are awarded.

The lawsuit states the wholesale distributors "breached their duty to monitor, detect, investigate, refuse and report suspicious orders of prescription opiates originating from Cabell County."

"They have one job. That is to monitor and detect suspicious orders," Farrell said. "What the commission is alleging is that the wholesalers didn't do their job, and as a result we had 40 million doses of prescription opiates dumped into Cabell County."

The lawsuit states West Virginia has an opioid pain reliever prescription rate of 123.6 per 100 people, ranking it third in the United States, which has a greater rate than any other country. The benzodiazepine prescription rate of 71.9 per 100 people ranks first nationally, the lawsuit claims.

While the Controlled Substances Act implemented regulations creating restrictions on the distribution of controlled substances, Farrell alleges the epidemic still rages because fines and suspensions imposed by the Drug Enforcement Administration do not change the conduct of the industry. He compared it to an everyday citizen paying a ticket.

"What we are seeing is the wholesalers have been paying the DEA fines like speeding tickets and the cost of doing business without changing their conduct or following the law," he said.

"They hold multiple DEA registration numbers, and when one facility is suspended, they simply ship from another facility," the lawsuit claims.

Farrell hopes the lawsuits will help deter that behavior in the future.

"What we are attempting to do is focus at the supply of prescription opiates," he said, "and compel distributors to start following the law by increasing the cost of doing business to include the damages they've caused."

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.

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