Between 2006 and 2012, drug companies distributed 76 billion doses of prescription pain medicine, “enough pills to supply every adult and child in the country with 36 each year,” said Scott Higham, Sari Horwitz and Steven Rich’s recent report for The Washington Post.
Rural counties, especially in Appalachia, received some of the highest shares of pain pills per person.
In Rowan County during the six-year span there were 8,013,120 prescription pain pills, enough for 49 pills per person, per year.
2,449,930 of the pills were distributed by AmerisourceBergen Drug and 3,486,000 were manufactured by Actavis Pharma, Inc.
Holbrook Drug received the most pills with 1,868,440. They were followed by Kroger (1,389,960), Family Health Clinic (1,196,100), Wal-mart (934,130), and Rite-Aid (920,510).
That’s according to a Drug Enforcement Administration database, made public for the first time by the Post.
The database tracks the path of every DEA-regulated pain medication in the U.S.
It includes local data that shows counties that received the most pills, fueling the prescription-opioid epidemic, resulting in nearly 100,000 deaths in that time period.
The Post reports that “rural areas were hit particularly hard.”
The data showed Kentucky ranked second in pills per person per year, at 63.3, topped only by West Virginia at 66.5, which had the highest opioid death rate during the period. South Carolina, mainly due to high rates along its Atlantic coast, was third at 58. Tennessee was fourth at 57.7, and Nevada was fifth at 54.7.
A 2016 report from the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center found that prescription opioids contributed to the overdose deaths of 2,481 Kentuckians between 2006 and 2012.
The Post’s interactive map shows that several counties in Eastern Kentucky had the highest distribution rates in the state: Whitley at 187, Perry at 175, Floyd at 168, Bell at 156, Johnson at 152, Pike at 146, Clay at 134 and Lee at 133.
Clinton County, at 147, stands out in the south-central part of the state, as do McCracken, at 107, and Crittenden, at 119, both in Western Kentucky.
Nearly half of the pills were distributed by three companies: McKesson, Walgreens and Cardinal Health. The top manufacturer was Mallinckrodt’s SpecGx, with nearly 38 percent of the market.
Because the database is partly comprised of data that drug makers gave the DEA, it shows what they knew about the number of pills they were shipping at the epidemic’s peak, the Post points out.
Drug manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies must log and report each narcotic transaction, and are supposed to report suspiciously large or frequent orders to the DEA and withhold such shipments.
Meanwhile, nearly 2,000 communities, counties and Indian tribes have alleged in federal lawsuits that the drug companies filled suspicious orders and did not report them in order to maximize profits.
The database was released last Monday after the Post and HD Media, which publishes the Charleston Gazette-Mail, won a years-long legal battle to access documents and data from the ongoing litigation.
The West Virginia newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on drug distribution, using other data.
The Post reports that the DEA, the Justice Department and drug companies all fought hard against release of the data.
The companies said it would reveal information that could give competitors an unfair advantage, and Justice said the data could compromise DEA investigations.
The Post report can be viewed at https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/investigations/dea-pain-pill-database/?utm_term=.c26da46afae5.
Brad Stacy can be reached at email@example.com or by telephone at 784-4116.