“There is an epidemic of prescription opioid abuse sweeping through Indian country and across the United Sates. It is an epidemic of unprecedented proportions in the recent history of the Cherokee Nation, leaving in its wake a substantial loss of resources, addiction, disability and death.”
These words are from the petition filed by plaintiff Cherokee Nation on April 20, 2017 against defendants CVS, Walgreens, Wal-Mart and other pharmacies. The petition goes on to remind that in 2015, 22,598 people in the United States died from overdosing on prescription opioids. Nationwide, deaths attributed to drug overdoses now surpass those from car accidents.
Oklahoma, home to most of the 120,000 citizens of the Cherokee Nation, has the highest rate of prescription painkiller abuse in the United States. “It’s a problem for the entire country,” said Chuck Hoskin, the secretary of state for Cherokee Nation. “But we are up against it in Cherokee Country.”
According to the Indian Health Service, since 1999 drug-related deaths among American Indians and Alaska Natives have nearly quadrupled. Undoubtebly, with higher rates than the national average for poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, drug abuse, diabetes and suicide, the Native American population is one of the most vulnerable minorities in America.
“These drug wholesalers and retailers have profited greatly by allowing the Cherokee Nation to become flooded with prescription opioids,” the lawsuit impresses. “They have habitually turned a blind eye to known or knowable problems in their own supply chains.” The DEA estimates that in 2015, approximately 845 million milligrams of opioids were issued across the 14 counties of Cherokee Nation— which amounts to 360-760 pills for every prescription opioid user.
The lawsuit alleges that the companies did not appropriately monitor opioid prescriptions. The Controlled Substances Act requires pharmacists to report suspicious activity to federal officials. This includes filling multiple prescriptions from different doctors for the same medication.
CVS has responded to STAT News, claiming to have “stringent policies, procedures and tools to ensure that our pharmacists properly exercise their corresponding responsibility to determine whether a controlled substance prescription was issued for a legitimate medical purpose before filling it.”
This statement leaves much to be desired. Within recent years, a handful of lawsuits from all over the nation have accused doctors, pharmaceutical companies and distributors of negligence and downplaying the addictiveness of opioids. Surely, the epidemic is caused by failures and profit-motivated shortcuts from the top down.
The problem is only growing, and the end game is yet unknown. What we do know is that combatting the epidemic is costing the country billions of dollars annually. Pharmacies must accept a portion of the responsibility, because their cooperation is crucial in healing the nation of these sick and deadly patterns.