Ohio has filed suit against four drug distributors over their alleged role in stoking Ohio’s opioid epidemic, Attorney General Mike DeWine announced Monday afternoon.
The suit follows one filed last year by DeWine against drug manufacturers.
Dublin-based Cardinal Health, Ohio’s largest company by revenue, is among the four companies named in the suit. Filed in the court of common pleas in Madison County, the lawsuit also names AmerisourceBergen, McKesson and Miami-Luken.
Cardinal, AmerisourceBergen and McKesson combined control more than 80 percent of drug distribution in the United States. Miami-Luken, based in Springboro, specializes in serving independent pharmacies mostly in and around Ohio, according to its website.
"We believe ... that these companies ignored their duties as drug distributors to ensure that opiods were not being diverted for improper use," said DeWine in a statement. "They knew the amount of opioids allowed to flow into Ohio far exceeded what could be consumed for medically-necessary purposes, but they did nothing to stop it."
Cardinal spokeswoman Ellen Barry provided the following statement: "Cardinal Health has been cooperating constructively in a good faith effort to alleviate this public health crisis and save lives. This has included our active participation with the multistate group of more than 40 attorneys general as well as with the multidistrict process in Cleveland.
"We are extremely disappointed that Attorney General DeWine chose to go outside of these established processes at this critical moment in time to file this unfounded lawsuit."
The company also said that its 6,600 Ohio employees "are passionately committed to helping make this state a better place to live," and "care deeply about opioid abuse and addiction."
AmerisourceBergen, commenting by email, said the company reports and halts "tens of thousands of potentially suspicious orders," refuses service to customers suspected of being a high risk for diversion and gives detailed daily reports to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The lawsuit does not specify a dollar amount, but seeks remedies including punitive damages and compensatory damages "for costs incurred by Ohio for its increased spending for healthcare, criminal justice, social services and education," according to a press release from DeWine.
Ohio becomes one of a handful of states so far to sue the distributors, which have been the target of high profile investigations by The Washington Post and 60 Minutes. Many cities and counties, in Ohio and nationwide, have sued the distributors. Earlier this month, Cardinal Health announced in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it was facing more than 340 suits around the country, a number which continues to grow. Counted as one case are several class-action suits, including one consolidating about 300 suits in a Cleveland court under U.S. District Court Judge Dan Polster.
Cardinal has previously said it is "vigorously defending" itself against opioid lawsuits. In January, though, new Cardinal Health CEO Mike Kaufmann said the company would consider settling opioid lawsuits at some point if "it’s a more potentially efficient way to go."
Last week, Kentucky became the third state to sue Cardinal, joining Delaware and New Mexico. West Virginia previously sued but reached a $20 million settlement with Cardinal a year ago.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ohio ranked second and Kentucky ranked fifth in the nation for the rate of drug overdoses in 2016. West Virginia ranked highest.
The majority of other states have have announced investigations of the distributors and their possible role in opioid addiction and deaths.
The fallout of opioid abuse has also become a political issue, one that DeWine faces as a Republican candidate for governor. DeWine and other Ohio candidates collectively have received nearly $1 million in political contributions from Cardinal since 1999, according to data from the secretary of state’s office.
At a September debate of four then-announced Democratic candidates for governor, former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton — now on the ticket as lieutenant governor with Democratic frontrunner Richard Cordray — slammed DeWine for having "presided over the eruption of the drug crisis" and for only taking action against drug companies in a way that was "too little, and ... a lot too late."
On Tuesday, the Ohio Democratic Party issued a statement using the same arguments against DeWine, calling the new lawsuit "one more belated attempt to get in front of a crisis that has exploded during his seven years on the job."
Marla Matzer Rose is a reporter with the Columbus Dispatch.