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Pulitzer-winning Gazette-Mail reporter discusses how he revealed pill shipments


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Eric Eyre said he didn’t even know what a drug wholesaler was when he first “kind of stumbled into” his Pulitzer Prize-winning story.

Eyre, an 18-year Gazette-Mail reporter, revealed in December that in “six years, wholesalers showered the state with 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills while 1,728 West Virginians fatally overdosed on those two painkillers.”

Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Eric Eyre talks about his road to winning the Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Journalism during a Monday evening talk at the University of Charleston.
(Photo by F. Brian Ferguson)
Eyre said wholesalers transport prescription drugs from manufacturers to pharmacies and hospitals.

He told an audience of about 200 at a newspaper sponsored event at the University of Charleston Monday that he had “no idea how big these companies were.”

The nation’s three largest prescription drug wholesalers supplied more than half of all pain pills statewide. He said all three were high atop the Fortune 500 ranking: McKesson Corp. was fifth, AmerisourceBergen Drug Co. was 12th and Cardinal Health was 21st.

“All these companies were bigger than IBM, they were bigger than Microsoft,” Eyre said at Monday’s event, which was part of the university’s Speaker Series.

And tiny West Virginia towns like Kermit, population 392, were receiving massive numbers of pills from wholesalers. Eyre reported that a single pharmacy in Kermit received nearly 9 million hydrocodone pills alone over a two-year period.

He said national media seized on his use of Kermit as an example of the problem.

While Kermit was getting millions of pills per year, Eyre said the Wal-Mart pharmacy at Southridge Centre, the large South Charleston shopping center, was getting about 10,000 or 15,000 hydrocodone and oxycodone pills per year.

“It was just an incredible difference,” Eyre said.

He said that Mingo received more hydrocodone pills than any other county, despite Kanawha County, the state’s most populous, having about seven times Mingo’s population.

“Boone, Logan, had these incredible numbers of pills, they were saturated with pills,” Eyre said. “And then when you lined that up with the drug overdose death maps, it was sort of the same — well, it wasn’t sort of, it was the same counties that had the highest overdose death rates.”

“What was interesting about the pharmacies, is it wasn’t the Rite Aids, it wasn’t the Walgreens, it wasn’t the CVS, it was the small, independent mom and pop pharmacies,” Eyre said of the pharmacies selling large numbers of pills. “And the people that owned them wielded tremendous political power in the counties where they were operating.”

He reported the state Board of Pharmacy wasn’t looking at reports of “suspicious orders” of pills. He said he asked to see the suspicious order reports, and the board provided them in banking boxes.

“I said, you know, ‘What am I supposed to do with these, how many are there, and how many companies,’” Eyre said. “And they said, ‘We don’t know.’”

He revealed that the board had shelved about 7,000 reports without investigating them.

Since the story was published, cities and counties have filed lawsuits against wholesalers.

“One of the outcomes of our stories is that a number of smaller cities, including Kermit and counties, including Kanawha and the City of Charleston, now they’re all trying to strike back,” Eyre said.

He said he came upon the story after current Attorney General Patrick Morrisey defeated 20-year incumbent Darrell McGraw in 2012 to take his first term of office. Eyre found out Cardinal Health had donated $2,500 to a special fund created to pay for Morrisey’s inaugural party.

Eyre said he read the company’s name out to a someone on the phone, and the person said, “Oh, stop right there.”

He said that from that point, he was able to figure out that McGraw had filed a lawsuit against Cardinal Health. He also learned that Morrisey was a former lobbyist for the trade association that represented Cardinal Health, and his wife was a lobbyist for the company. Morrisey’s wife has since severed ties with that company.

Eyre learned what a wholesaler was through that reporting. Through Freedom of Information Act requests and the pro bono legal representation of Madison-based attorney Tim Conaway and Morgantown-based attorney and West Virginia University law professor Pat McGinley, Eyre and the newspaper were able to reveal the numbers of pain pills shipped at an unprecedented level of detail, including by wholesaler providing and pharmacy receiving.

“This was the first time you could actually put a real number to it,” Eyre said.

Eyre noted how widespread the effect of the opioid crisis has been in West Virginia. Southern West Virginia includes the top four counties — Wyoming, McDowell, Boone and Mingo — for fatal overdoses caused by pain pills in the U.S., according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He talked about first responders being called out to treat the same people for an overdose three times in one day and responding to pregnant women overdosing. He said he and his neighbors had a heroin dealer in their community who died last weekend of an overdose.

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