Distributors internal communications called into question at trial.
AmerisourceBergen top executives passed along emails mocking “pillbillies” who became addicted to opioid painkillers even as the company distributed excessive amounts of pills into Appalachia, fueling the nation’s opioid epidemic. The company is the tenth largest in the U.S. by revenue, providing drug distribution and consulting related to medical business operations and patient services.
In 2011, an email included a rhyme about “a poor mountaineer” named Jed who “barely kept his habit fed…Jed travels to Florida to buy Hillbilly Heroin” (aka OxyContin). Another email reads, “Sunny Florida is the place you ought to be. So, they loaded up the truck and drove speedily. South, that is. Pain clinics, cash ‘n carry. A bevy of pillbillies!” It continues, “They’re all invited back again to this locality. To have a heapin’ helpin’ of Florida hospitality. Pill mills that is. Buy some pills. Take a load home. Y’all come back now, y’hear?”
In yet another email, Kentucky is referred to as “OxyContinville” because of the high use of the drug in rural areas. When Kentucky introduced new regulations limit dispensing of the drug, an AmerisourceBergen executive wrote, “One of the hillbilly’s [sic] must have learned how to read :-)”.
After Florida cracked down on pill mills, Chris Zimmerman, a senior executive, emailed colleagues, “Watch out Georgia and Alabama, there will be a max exodus of Pillbillies heading north.” During the trial, Zimmerman shared that he regretted this but defended his communication, saying it was as “a reflection of the environment at the time.”
A spokesperson for the company, Gabe Weissman, said, the emails were “simply a demonstration of the fact that part of AmerisourceBergen’s comprehensive monitoring program includes tracking for potential illegal activity and prescription drug diversion trends via the Internet.” He added, “Through this process our diversion investigators often discover and share content.”
“It is a pattern of conduct by those people charged with protecting our community, and they’re circulating emails disparaging hillbillies,” Paul Farrell, an attorney for a West Virginia county, fired back. He contended Zimmerman failed to enforce company policies to report suspicious orders to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
The city of Huntington and surrounding Cabell county have filed the lawsuit against distribution companies AmerisourceBergen, McKesson, and Cardinal Health – “The Big Three.” This is the first case to go to rial after AmerisourceBergen, McKesson and two other companies agreed to pay $260 million to settle the bellwether cases in Ohio in 2019.
From 2015 to 2020, more than 700 people died of opioid overdoses in Cabell County, which is considered “ground zero” for the crisis. Data compiled by the federal government showed distributors shipped nearly 128 million doses of prescription opioids to the county from 2006 to 2014. In 2017, AmerisourceBergen also paid $16 million to settle a West Virginia opioid deliveries case but did not admit wrongdoing, and the same year, McKesson paid a record $150 million to settle a case with the DEA.