By Janelle Stecklein

CNHI State Reporter

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s attorney general Monday filed suit against three pharmaceutical distribution companies, alleging they acted as middlemen in the state’s opioid crisis.

Attorney General Mike Hunter said he’s seeking an unspecified amount of damages from McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc. and AmerisourceBergen Corp. for failing to stop or report suspiciously large orders of opioids that clearly weren’t going to be used for legitimate medical uses.

During a press conference announcing the lawsuit filed in Cleveland County, Hunter said the companies ignored “red flags” and played a major role in flooding not only Oklahoma, but the country, with the prescription pain medicine.

“These companies were happy to meet that demand with no questions asked,” Hunter said.

As the state’s worst manmade public health crisis grew, so did the companies’ coffers, he said.

“These companies make billions of dollars by supplying massive and unjustifiable quantities of opioids,” he said. “They need to pay for the destruction their greed has caused.”

He said the three companies collectively supplied 34 billion opioid pills in the United States from 2006 to 2012.

Hunter said the distributors are already facing similar lawsuits in other states, and there was a previous settlement that topped $200 million.

“Our company plays an important but limited role in the pharmaceutical supply chain, and any suggestion that McKesson drove demand for opioids in this country reflects a fundamental misunderstanding and mischaracterization of our role as a distributor,” said Sunny Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the Texas-based company, in an email. “We will continue to fight that mischaracterization and defend ourselves in the litigation.”

In a statement, AmerisourceBergen said it and other wholesale drug distributors are responsible for getting Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs from manufacturers to registered pharmacies — based on prescriptions written by licensed doctors and health care providers.

“We are dedicated to doing our part as a distributor to mitigate the diversion of these drugs without interfering with clinical decisions made by doctors, who interact directly with patients and decide what treatments are most appropriate for their care,” the Pennsylvania-based company said. “Beyond our reporting and immediate halting of potentially suspicious orders, we refuse service to customers we deem as a diversion risk and provide daily reports to the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] that detail the quantity, type, and the receiving pharmacy of every single order of these products that we distribute.”

Ohio-based Cardinal Health did not return an email seeking comment as of press time.

The lawsuit comes as Hunter and Johnson & Johnson both continue to appeal a $465 million verdict handed down in Cleveland County last year.

After an eight-week trial in Norman last year, Judge Thad Balkman found Johnson & Johnson created a public nuisance by launching a misleading marketing campaign that contributed to the opioid epidemic in the state. He initially ordered the New Jersey-based company to pay $572 million to help fix the problem. Acknowledging he miscalculated the initial verdict, Balkman later reduced it.

It was well short of the $17.5 billion state leaders had sought to clean up the crisis over the next 30 years. Balkman ruled the state did not present sufficient evidence of the amount of time and costs necessary, beyond one year, to clean up the opioid crisis going forward.

Balkman also has been assigned to hear the case against the three distributors.

Hunter said the state is not going to argue the distributors created a public nuisance.

Hunter said he’s also not sure if he’ll seek another bench trial or request a jury hear the evidence, but said Cleveland County remains an ideal venue. It is representative of the state and has both rural and urban areas, he said.

The Norman Transcript contributed to this report.

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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