Newly released federal data shows some Southwest Virginia counties and independent cities among the highest in the nation for prescription pills per person — but law enforcement officials said Friday they aren’t surprised by the numbers.
The data, released this week by a federal court in Ohio as part of a far-reaching opioids case, shows that companies distributed 8.4 billion hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to commercial pharmacies in 2006 and 12.6 billion in 2012. That’s an increase of over 50 percent.
Over that seven-year period, 76 billion pills were distributed in all, according to an analysis by The Washington Post, which had sued along with another outlet, HD Media, to obtain the data.
The nation’s addiction crisis accelerated from 2006 to 2012 and Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp said those numbers correlate with the number of court cases and overdoses.
Slemp serves as the chief prosecutor in Norton, where the data shows 306 pills person, the most opioid pain pills per capita in the country between 2006 and 2012.
The Washington Post notes that the county-level maps reveal a virtual opioid belt of more than 90 counties stretching southwest from Webster County, West Virginia, through Southwest Virginia and ending in Monroe County, Kentucky. The swath includes 18 of the top 20 counties ranked by per-capita prescription opioid deaths nationwide and 12 of the top 20 counties for opioid pills distributed per capita.
Norton and Wise County, with 120 pills per capita, sit at the center of the opioid epidemic.
“It’s just an outrageous amount,” said Slemp. “I don’t think it’s surprising to anyone in the criminal justice community.”
Wise County’s caseload of drug-related charges surged between 2006 and 2012, he said.
But since 2012, Slemp said he’s seen some improvement. There has been a decrease in the number of prescription drug-related cases, but an increase in methamphetamine cases, he said.
Slemp and Norton Police Chief James Lane said there are several reasons behind Norton’s high number of pills per capita. The city, with a population of about 4,000 people, is home to two hospitals, five pharmacies and multiple doctors’ offices.
As a health care center for the Coalfields region, many people come to Norton from surrounding areas, including Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee, to see a doctor and fill prescriptions, Lane said.
So the 8 million pills distributed in the city of Norton from 2006 to 2012 weren’t just consumed by city residents, Lane notes.
Slemp added that the news that Norton has the highest number of pills per capita overlooks what’s happening behind the scenes. The prosecutor said law enforcement officials in Norton and surrounding areas have been working in recent years to identify “bad doctors.”
“There has been a push to make sure those bad doctors, the doctors that are running pill mills, are stopped,” Slemp said.
At least four Norton-area doctors have been prosecuted in the past three years regarding pill distribution, overprescribing and misusing.
This past Friday, Michael B. Ford and his wife, Una Faye Ford, were convicted of 15 felony offenses for various drug distribution and fraud crimes committed while operating the Appalachian Medical Clinic in Appalachia, Virginia. The couple entered an Alford plea in the case.
“Dr. Ford and his wife operated a pill mill in Wise County,” Slemp said in a news release regarding the conviction.
Despite the large number of pills, Slemp said officials still believe Norton and Wise County is a safe community.
“We have our share of challenges. They are being addressed,” he said.
This week’s data release shows which pharmacies in each of the communities distributed the most pills. In Norton, the Walmart pharmacy distributed 3,534,780 pills from 2006 to 2012.
Walmart, which did not respond to a request for comment Friday, has started a number of efforts to battle the opioid epidemic, according to its website.
Walmart supports policies and programs aimed at helping curb opioid abuse and misuse, the company said in a news release in 2018.
“We are taking action in the fight against the nation’s opioid epidemic,” said Marybeth Hays, executive vice president of Health & Wellness and Consumables, Walmart U.S. “We are proud to implement these policies and initiatives as we work to create solutions that address this critical issue facing the patients and communities we serve.”
Norton wasn’t the only local community with staggering opioid numbers. The data shows 104 pills per capita in Bristol, 121 pills in Dickenson County, 102 in Scott County and 100 in Tazewell County.
Locally owned pharmacies, as well as national chains, are listed as distributing the most pills in each of the communities. In Washington County, with 70 pills per capita, the CVS pharmacy had the highest count. A local pharmacy in Smyth County had that county’s highest count, the data reveals.
The distribution data, maintained by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, is a key element of lawsuits filed by more than 2,000 state, local and tribal governments — including locally — seeking to hold drug companies accountable for the crisis.
The data is consistent with information obtained as part of Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, which showed that Purdue alone pushed nearly 150 million opioid pills and patches between 2008 and 2017.
Herring is part of an ongoing bipartisan multistate investigation into whether various manufacturers and distributors engaged in unlawful practices in the marketing, sale, and distribution of opioids.
“This new data just reinforces what we’ve long known: the roots of this crisis run through American medicine cabinets into the boardrooms and marketing offices of pharmaceutical companies, and they need to be held accountable,” Herring said.