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Drug Firms Make Millions By Sending Opioid Pills To W.Va., Report Says


Reporters are often told to follow the money. A newspaper in West Virginia followed a trail of pills.

ERIC EYRE: The top four counties in the United States for prescription opioid drug overdose deaths are all in southern West Virginia.

MARTIN: Eric Eyre writes for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and he's been collecting data that revealed the scale of West Virginia's prescription drug problem. For example, over a six-year span, drug wholesalers shipped 780 million painkilling pills to pharmacies in that state. That's more than 400 pills for every person living there. Eric Eyre joined us from member station WVPB, and he described how this cycle often begins - with West Virginians seeking out so-called pain clinics.

EYRE: What a pain clinic is it's a place where people go and they pay cash for prescriptions. But in some cases, there's not even a doctor that they see. They just - as long as they pay their money, they get their prescription and then they go to these rogue or what they call pill mill pharmacies. The state has taken some important steps to try to get a handle on these pain clinics, and they've shut quite a few down. I think more than a dozen have been shut down in the last two years.

MARTIN: So your reporting showed that over a two-year period out-of-state drug companies shipped nearly 9 million hydrocodone pills to one particular pharmacy in Mingo County, W.Va. To put that into context for us, I mean, what's the population of this county, and how does that rate of shipping this drug, how does that stack up nationwide?

EYRE: The population of the county, Mingo County, is about 33,000, but the actual town is less than 400 people. So it's an extraordinary number of pills. I haven't done the math, but, yeah, that's an extraordinary number in - for two years.

MARTIN: So these drug companies are shipping the pills to these counties because there's a demand for it, right? I mean, they would argue, I suppose, that they are just fulfilling the requests of doctors who are saying I need these pills to prescribe to my patients.

EYRE: Yeah, that's exactly what their argument is, that it's the doctors who are writing the prescriptions. It's the pharmacies that are dispensing the medications and that they're just the middleman. But there are federal and state laws where they're supposed to report suspicious orders, and when they get to these such high volumes, they're supposed to put a halt to the shipments. The state Board of Pharmacy here, we learned, did not enforce that law for more than a decade.

MARTIN: Were you able to talk with the pharmacists who work at these one or two pharmacies in this particular county that's seeing all this - this flood of these drugs come through?

EYRE: The one that had the 9 million pills over two years has been shut down, and he went to jail. And I did not reach him. But what's most interesting about the pharmacies is it's not the Rite Aids. It's not the Walgreens. It's not the Wal-Mart pharmacies. It's these small, independent, what you might call mom-and-pop pharmacies. They're the ones that are ordering up the extraordinary number of pills and receiving the pills from the drug distributors.

MARTIN: And making money off of it.

EYRE: Yeah. They're obviously making a lot of money, and of course, the drug wholesalers are making a lot of money as well.

MARTIN: What's been the response of the communities who you profiled in this reporting?

EYRE: To be honest, the people who've been impacted by overdose - let's just say the families - they really do point the finger at the doctor because that's their interface. Now, there's quite a handful of these doctors that work out of these pain clinics that believe when somebody comes in for a migraine that they ought to get a 30-day supply of oxycontin or hydrocodone. But a number of those that we've written about in our paper have since faced federal charges and things like that. But some of them do believe they're helping people.

MARTIN: Eric Eyre is a reporter with the Charleston Gazette-Mail. We've been talking with him about his reporting on the opioid crisis in West Virginia. Thanks so much for your time, Eric.

EYRE: Thanks very much for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.