Herald-Dispatch: Greater transparency of drug sales is warranted

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — A West Virginia lawsuit against 11 drug companies has raised a pertinent question about transparency surrounding the shipment of prescription painkillers to the state.

The drug wholesalers – all based out of state – don’t want the public to know the volume of drug shipments they sent to the Mountain State in recent years. The state says the information should be made available to the West Virginia public.

Lawyers for state government are on the right side of this argument, in our view.

The issue stems from a lawsuit filed by former Attorney General Darrell McGraw in 2012. The complaint alleges that drug wholesalers contributed to Southern West Virginia’s prescription drug problem by shipping an excessive number of painkillers to so-called “pill mill” pharmacies in that region.

The companies targeted in the lawsuit have provided pill shipment records to the law firm representing the state in the case. Those records included the pharmacies that received the pills, shipment and delivery dates, total sales and, in some cases, drug prices, according to a report on the lawsuit in The Charleston Gazette.

The state recently requested that those shipment records be unsealed; the companies say they only provided the information with the understanding that the information would be kept confidential. The companies involved contend that an order in the case allowed them to “keep highly sensitive business information from falling into the hands of their direct competition.” While that may make sense in regard to the prices of drugs, the public’s interest in this case should take priority in regard to the volumes of drugs they distributed.

Attorneys for the wholesalers also argued that the state should not be allowed to “start playing to the court of public opinion ” But the public has a vital stake in knowing what has contributed to West Virginia having the highest drug overdose rate in the country. How can the public determine whether justice is served if it’s not privy to the amount of drugs sold?

West Virginia Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, observed that prescription drug problems have devastated many West Virginia families. “With this issue, we’re not only called on to be transparent, we’re duty-bound to pursue transparency in a situation where we have numerous deaths, addictions and a tremendous economic impact on the state,” Perdue told the Gazette.

It has been apparent in many criminal cases that drug distributors weren’t paying attention to the huge number of pain killers they were shipping or else declined to act on the implications. A pharmacy in a lightly populated area near the Wayne-Mingo county line purchased more of the pain killer hydrocodone than all but 21 retail pharmacies in the nation during 2006, according to court affidavits. In a more recent case, a small storefront pharmacy in Barboursville ordered more oxycodone than all but two pharmacies in West Virginia from January to August 2014, according to search warrants.

How could such instances not raise suspicions by those supplying the drugs?

Perdue is correct that more transparency, not only in this case, but on a consistent basis might do much to put the brakes on diversion of drugs from their medically justified uses.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration already receives shipment information from the wholesalers. It should continue – and improve – its monitoring of that data to look for and act on suspicious trends. But that information is largely kept under wraps unless shared in a criminal case. If more eyes were on that type of information, perhaps abuses could be identified more quickly and just maybe so many would not occur.

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