Executives at one of the US’ largest drug distributors circulated rhymes and e-mails mocking “hillbillies” who became addicted to opioid painkillers even as the company poured hundreds of millions of pills into parts of Appalachia at the heart of the US’ opioid epidemic.
The trial of pharmaceutical firms accused of illegally flooding West Virginia with opioids was told earlier this month that senior staff at AmerisourceBergen, the 10th-largest company in the US by revenue, routinely disparaged communities blighted by the worst drug epidemic in the country’s history.
One e-mail in 2011 included a rhyme built around “a poor mountaineer” named Jed who “barely kept his habit fed.”
According to the verse, “Jed” travels to Florida to buy “Hillbilly Heroin,” the nickname for OxyContin, the drug manufactured by Purdue Pharma which launched an epidemic that has claimed more than 500,000 lives.
Florida was well known through the 2000s for lax regulation of pain clinics where doctors illegally prescribed and dispensed large amounts of opioids to those the verse calls a “bevy of Pillbillies.”
Another rhyme described Kentucky as “OxyContinville” because of the high use of the drug in the poor rural east of the state.
When Kentucky introduced new regulations to curb opioid dispensing, an AmerisourceBergen executive wrote in a widely circulated e-mail: “One of the hillbilly’s [sic] must have learned how to read :-).”
Another e-mail contained a mocked up breakfast cereal box with the word “smack” under the words “OxyContin for kids.”
One of those who wrote and circulated disparaging e-mails was Chris Zimmerman, the senior executive responsible for enforcing AmerisourceBergen’s legal obligation to halt opioid deliveries to pharmacies suspected of dispensing suspiciously large amounts of the drugs, often in concert with corrupt doctors who made small fortunes writing illegal prescriptions.
After Florida cracked down on pill mills in 2011, Zimmerman sent an e-mail to colleagues.
“Watch out George and Alabama, there will be a max exodus of Pillbillies heading north,” he wrote.
Zimmerman told the trial he regretted circulating the mocking rhyme, but it was “a reflection of the environment at the time.”
He said the e-mails were simply a means of expressing frustration as the firm worked to prevent opioids falling into the wrong hands.
Zimmerman said the company culture was of the “highest caliber.”
Paul Farrell, a lawyer for a West Virginia county, put it to the executive that the e-mails reflected a culture of contempt.
“It is a pattern of conduct by those people charged with protecting our community, and they’re circulating e-mails disparaging hillbillies,” the Mountain State Spotlight quoted him as saying.
The city of Huntington and surrounding Cabell County are suing AmerisourceBergen and two other major distributors, McKesson and Cardinal Health, as part of a series of federal cases over the pharmaceutical industry’s push to sell narcotic painkillers that created the opioid epidemic.
This is the first case to go to a full trial after AmerisourceBergen, McKesson and two other companies agreed to pay US$260 million to settle another of the bellwether cases in Ohio two years ago.
The two West Virginia local authorities accuse the distributors of putting profit before lives and turning Cabell County into the “ground zero” of the epidemic.
A data expert on Tuesday told the trial that over nine years the three distributors delivered about 100 million opioid doses to the county, which has a population of just 90,000.
Farrell put it to Zimmerman that he failed to enforce company policies to report suspicious orders to the US Drug Enforcement Administration and to withhold deliveries while they were investigated.
Zimmerman said that if the company had stopped deliveries it would have harmed patients who needed the drugs.
“We’re a company, we’re not an enforcement agency and we’re not a regulatory agency,” he said.
Drug distributors delivered 1.1 billion opioid painkillers to West Virginia between 2006 and 2014, even as the state’s overdose rate rose to the highest in the US.
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