Attorney General Alan Wilson (copy)

Attorney General Alan Wilson announced a new lawsuit against the nation's largest drug distributers on August 15, 2019. The lawsuit accuses the companies of fueling opioid addiction in the state. File/Andrew Brown/Staff 

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson sued the nation's largest drug shipment companies Thursday, accusing the massive corporations of feeding an ongoing opioid crisis in the state. 

The lawsuit joins a wave of similar claims from cities, states and counties across the country, including the City of Charleston that filed its own lawsuit on Thursday.

The litigation filed by the Attorney General alleges Amerisource Bergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson Corp. — the largest drug wholesalers in the country — stood by while powerful painkillers were diverted illegally. 

Wilson's office previously collaborated with dozens of other states in investigating the pharmaceutical industry, which led to a 2017 lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin.

The new lawsuit targets another sector of the opioid industry: the companies that shipped billions of pills to pharmacies throughout the country.  

Between 2006 and 2012, federal data shows more than 1.8 billion prescription painkillers were shipped to pharmacies throughout South Carolina.

Not all of those pills were handled by Cardinal, McKesson and Amerisource Bergen. But the lawsuit argues those companies "played an outsized role in flooding South Carolina with these drugs." 

In announcing the lawsuit, Wilson’s office specifically highlighted the large number of pills shipped into Charleston County. The federal data, which was released this summer, showed that between 2006 and 2012 distributors shipped 248 pills to the county for every resident.

But the attorney general’s office left out a major caveat: Charleston County is home to a major mail-order pharmacy that ships medications to veterans across the country. That facility accounts for the overwhelming majority of the painkillers that passed through the county over that period.

Of the 1.8 billion pills that came to South Carolina, more than one in four went to the packaging facility, which is run by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

This isn't the first lawsuit to come out of South Carolina targeting Cardinal, McKesson and Amerisource Bergen. More than a dozen counties in South Carolina also named the massive drug distributors as defendants in ongoing federal lawsuits. 

Wilson is accusing the wholesale companies of turning a blind eye to suspicious orders for high volumes of painkillers from pharmacies throughout the state.

"The Defendants’ systems for monitoring, reporting, and rejecting suspicious orders were woefully inadequate," the attorney general's office said. "Given the massive volume of opioids they shipped into the state, these companies knew or should have known that the pills they were distributing were not being used for legitimate purposes, but being diverted to the black market."  

McKesson pointed the finger back at the pharmacies it supplied, and it pointed out that all of those facilities were licensed and reported to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Meanwhile, Amerisource Bergen took issue with the data the Attorney General's office was relying on. It highlighted the large number of pills that the VA handled in Charleston, and suggested Wilson's lawsuit was misrepresenting the data. 

Cardinal Health did not respond to emails requesting comment.

The Healthcare Distribution Alliance, a trade group that represents the three companies, pushed back against the claims in the lawsuit. 

"The idea that distributors are responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and is regulated," the trade group said. "Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation.”

Wilson argues those orders helped expand opioid addiction in the state — a public health crisis that claimed the lives of 816 South Carolinians last year. 

"The outcomes in South Carolina are catastrophic — and getting worse," the lawsuit says. "As of January 2018, combined heroin and prescription opioid overdose deaths in South Carolina had exceeded the number of homicides in the state for three straight years."

“Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to the opioid epidemic. But this lawsuit against Cardinal, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen is an important step in reversing the damage they have done to the public health and safety of our state," Wilson said in a statement.

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Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.