OSWEGO — Federal data tracking pain pills sold in the United States, recently made public after a year-long court battle waged by The Washington Post and Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, show Oswego County was flooded with more than 29 million pain pills between 2006 and 2012.
Data from the state Department of Health (DOH) indicates more than 80 individuals in Oswego County died as a result of opioid overdoses between 2014 and 2018, with more than 150 documented overdoses between 2017 and 2018. The Washington Post data provides a window into the local distribution of prescription pain pills, which many experts say fueled the nationwide opioid crisis.
Nationwide more than 75 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pills were sold in the United States between 2006 and 2012, according to the data, which comes from a database maintained by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). During that timeframe, The Washington Post reports nearly 100,000 individuals died as a result of opioid overdose.
Though the current data provides the clearest picture yet of the manufacture and sale of opioids in the U.S., there are some gaps in the information, including the equivalent dosages distributed to certain areas and the number of individuals who were prescribed the drugs.
Between 2006 and 2012 there were enough pain pills distributed to Oswego County to provide each person with 34 pills per year, a number slightly below the national average.
According to the dataset, which is called the Automation of Reports and Consolidated Order System (ARCOS), some rural areas in Virginia and West Virginia were inundated with more than 200 pills per person annually, with more than 300 pills per person distributed in Norton City, Virginia.
"The opioid epidemic has torn apart too many families in our district and we must take action," said Congressman Anthony Brindisi, D-Utica, who recently crafted legislation to stop fentanyl, a deadly opioid more powerful than heroin, from entering the country. "These statistics are daunting and underscore that Congress must fight back against illegal drugs, hold big drug companies accountable for their tactics and provide treatment to those addicted."
Oswego County joined countless other municipalities across the nation in filing a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers in January 2018, and the state followed suit filing a similar complaint earlier this year.
New York City-based lawfirm Simons Hanly Conroy is handling the Oswego County lawsuit, which includes a number of other counties in the state.
Attorney Paul Hanly Jr., chair of Simons Hanly Conroy’s complex litigation unit, is spearheading the county lawsuit, and applauded the release of the ARCOS data.
“I haven’t had a chance to specifically look at Oswego’s ARCOS data, but I assume it’s showing a number of pills per capita that’s probably off the charts,” Hanly said, noting plaintiffs in a federal case he’s co-leading have been pushing for the release of the data for more than a year. “The American people and the citizens of Oswego County are entitled to complete transparency from theses companies that made hundreds of millions, billions, of dollars on the sale of drugs into your community and we are very grateful that the court has agreed with that, and the result, of course, is the release of the data.”
The recently released data could shed some light on the nefarious actors that were previously unknown, Hanly said, noting more parties could be added to the suit as the discovery process unfolds. Hanly believes the data is ultimately a positive for the county’s lawsuit.
“It’s great for the claims of Oswego and other counties around the nation because it establishes that these communities were being nearly suffocated in opioids,” he said. “That the number of pills that went into your community far exceeded the legitimate medical need and all of this is the result of decisions made by the manufacturers and distributors.”
Hanly said the cases filed by most of the 62 New York counties, including Oswego County, are proceeding in Suffolk County and a judge has picked the cases of Suffolk and Nassau counties and the state to go to trial as “test cases to sort of see how the jury and the judge will respond to the allegations.” Those three suits are scheduled for trial in early 2020, but Hanly noted it would likely be pushed back until later in the year.
Several of the parties the county and state sued show up in The Washington Post data, including McKesson Corporation and Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin.
McKesson Corporation distributed more than 9 million of the 29,114,405 pain pills that entered Oswego County in the six-year period, more than twice as much as any other distributor. Nationally, McKesson distributed more than 14 billion pills, nearly one-fifth of all the pills ultimately prescribed to Americans. Efforts to reach McKesson were not successful Friday.
In addition to the distributor data, the ARCOS database shows SpecGx LLC — the nation’s largest manufacturer at more than 28 billion pills — made more than 12.5 million of the 29 million pills that found their way to Oswego County.
Next in line both nationally and locally, Actavis Pharma, Inc., which manufactured more than 7.5 million of the Oswego County pills, and Par Pharmaceutical combined to make another 12 million pills, while no other manufacturer provided more than 1.5 million pills to Oswego County.
Farnham Family Services Executive Director Eric Bresee called the addiction a “multi-layered” problem, and said it’s difficult to point a finger to any one industry or source responsible for the opioid crisis.
“I can’t just point and say opiates are evil and pharmaceutical companies were the only problem,” he said. “It’s multi-pronged and it’s couched in a changing culture and almost a disconnection from the community.”
Bresee said biochemistry, genetic predisposition and an individual’s community support network are all contributing factors when it comes to addiction, pointing out prescription painkillers help many people suffering from pain who ultimately don’t suffer from substance use disorder.
There were, however, mistakes made in the marketing and prescribing of prescription painkillers, Bresee said, noting pharmaceutical companies are starting to be held responsible for their actions as information related to the marketing of opioid painkillers came to light in recent years.
“Certainly with the whole pharmaceuticals thing there was a lot of advertising and a lot of sales positions with these medications that didn’t necessarily present the total picture of what the risk was, or it certainly wasn’t highlighted,” Bresee said. “So doctors were prescribing it without all the information.”
No single Oswego County pharmacy was responsible for more than 10 percent of the pills distributed within the county.
Wayne Drug was the top distributor with about 2.8 million pills, followed by KPH Healthcare Services — a Kinney Drugs affiliate — in Pulaski with roughly 2.7 million pills. Fulton-based Frank and Fran Drugs Inc., which operated Fulton Medicine Place, Central Square Wal-Mart and KPH Healthcare in Mexico all sold between 1.7 and 1.8 million pills over the six-year timeframe.
Wayne Drugs owner and pharmacist Bob Branshaw, who has more than 60 years experience, said the locally-owned pharmacy likely fills more prescriptions than other local pharmacies.
“Our prescription volume across the board is higher than other pharmacies,” he said. “Hopefully because of the trust factor we’ve built over 71 years.”
Branshaw said pharmacists screen all prescriptions for legitimacy to ensure the person receiving the medication is “in bona fide need of the medicine.” He said the pharmacy does not want to participate with individuals suspected of doctor shopping, abusing or selling medications.
“That’s not what we are,” Branshaw said in reference to the many pill mills that have been uncovered across the country in recent years. “We’ve been in business too long and we don’t want to even think that we would be participating in anything like that.”
That being said, Branshaw said the pharmacists have an obligation to fill prescriptions for those in need unless there’s a genuine concern a given prescription is illegal or forged. He said the pharmacy works to counsel customers who may be in need of treatment or a doctor to give them appropriate care.
Branshaw said painkillers were “absolutely overprescribed in the past,” but noted better reporting systems and accurate databases have been implemented. Each night upon closing the pharmacy, he said pharmacists report each controlled substance to the state.
The ARCOS dataset shows the number of pills distributed in the U.S. increased more than 50 percent, from 8.4 billion in 2006 to 12.6 billion in 2012, as the opioid crisis continued to impact local communities across the country.
Doctor’s prescribing habits have changed in recent years, however, according to Branshaw, who said fewer prescriptions are now being written with fewer pills per prescription on average.
One major change Branshaw said he’d like to see in the future is an end to prescription drug advertising in the U.S.
“God I wish they would find a way to ban TV advertising of drugs,” he said.
Largely as a result of the ongoing opioid crisis, Farnham opened the county’s first medication-assisted treatment program for opioid addiction in late 2017. Less than two years later the program services roughly 180 individuals suffering from substance use disorder related to heroin and other opioids.
Bresee said anyone struggling with addiction should know help is available, and noted Farnham recently started conducting walk-in access for the opioid treatment program each Monday starting at 8 a.m. so individuals no longer have to call ahead for an appointment.