Sunday, November 13, 2022

NCBJ 2022: The Devastating Impact of the Opioid Crisis featuring Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Eric Eyre

 "The opioid crisis is nothing short of sinister."

Eric Eyre and Patrick McGinley from the West Virginia University College of Law, told the story of how a small town journalist discovered the cause of the opioid epidemic in Appalachia. Along the way, Mr. Eyre developed Parkinson's disease, won the Pulitzer Prize for his book and had his newspaper file for Chapter 11 relief. Prof. McGinley represented the newspaper pro bono in making open records act requests which were repeatedly rebuffed.  

The story began in 2005 when William Bull Preece died in a ladder fall in a mine. His addiction to opioids contributed to his death. His sister Debbie compiled "the list of the dead," a listing of everyone within a ten mile radius who had died from opioids. 

Eric Eyre was a journalist for the Charleston Gazette-Mail who covered the West Virginia statehouse among other duties. A new West Virginia Attorney General had just taken office. The AG moved to West Virginia to run for office. Before being elected, he had been a lobbyist for opioid manufacturers and his wife was still lobbying on behalf of the big big three manufacturers. He took over supervising cases brought by his predecessor but insisted that he would recuse himself from any participation in the cases. From, 2013-2016, he attended hearings in circuit court to monitor the case. He received a tip about the inaugural party. The paper filed a FOIA request and intervened in the state court action. When they did, they found out that everything in the case, including the complaint was sealed. He found it bizarre that a case brought on behalf of the people of West Virginia was kept secret from the people of West Virginia. The judge twice ruled that the complaints should be unsealed but the distributors argued that the complaint contained confidential business information.

Then there was a FOIA battle to show that the Attorney General had not recused himself. The paper obtained documents showing that the Attorney General had given specific instructions for dealing with the cases and had personally met with executives of Cardinal Health. The paper received an email from the Attorney General's Office stating that it would face sanctions  if it published the story. The paper published the story anyway. While they did not face sanctions, the Attorney General's Office opened an antitrust investigation against the small paper. 

As the battle over unsealing the complaint proceeded, the AG said that he wanted to redact just words 18 words from the complaint. The Judge denied the request and it came out that the 18 words listed the number of opioids being sold in West Virginia from 20016-2012. The complaint got the number from information in a DEA database. The public had no idea that hundreds of millions of pills were being sold in their state. Eventually it turned out that 780 million pills had been brought into West Virginia. 

The opioid epidemic was facilitated by sham clinics. 50% of the entire prescriptions in the state of West Virginia came from a single clinic. Persons wanting prescriptions could get anything they wanted for $150 cash.  There was not even a doctor at the clinic. Employees used machines to print out prescriptions.  

The epidemic was also facilitated by local pharmacies. Save Rite Pharmacy was described as an open air drug market.  Although it was located in a town of just 400, it was the sixth largest seller of opioids in the United States.  It filled thousands of prescriptions a day.

The question was how did they get the opioids?  Debbie Preece followed a delivery truck around the county and took a picture of its license plate. The plate was traced back to Cardinal Health, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the country. 

While trying to track down the source of the opioid crisis, Debbie Preece lost another brother to opiods. Her brother, the fire chief, responded to the call, but didn't have any Narcan to save his life. 

Meanwhile Eric Eyre's newspaper filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Despite having won the Pulitzer Price for his reporting, he had to reapply for his job.

Plaintiff's lawyers smelled money and sued everyone in the supply chain. Eventually there were 3,000 cases which became part of a Multi-District Litigation.                                                                                                              

Everyone knew there was a problem with opioids because of the number of deaths. The big question was where were the pills coming from. Were they coming from Mexican cartels?  The DEA database showed that the pills were coming from American manufacturers but the DEA fought its release. Eventually the Plaintiff's lawyers were able to get the database by sending FOIA requests to small counties which had information.  

When the data came out, it was revealed that nationally there were 110 billion pills sold that killed half a million people.  

"Everyone knew what was going on."

Post-Script: In 2018, Attorney General Morrissey, whose inaugural ball helped launch the investigation, ran for U.S. Senate. He lost to Joe Manchin.

My take-away from this program is that there was a cynical effort by government regulators in league with industry lobbyists, to conceal the nature of the opioid epidemic in this country. The DEA had the data but didn't want it released. A curious and determined reporter, aided by the sister of a victim, uncovered part of the story. Plaintiff's lawyers unearthed more of the story. Eventually it played out in bankruptcy courts. My summary doesn't really do the story justice. You can find the book, Death in Mud Lick, here


megan baumer said...

A fascinating post.

Anonymous said...

Great story. Thanks for sharing!!!