For the First Time, the Feds Criminally Charged a Pharma Distributor for the Opioid Epidemic

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The federal government is escalating its action against bad actors in the pharmaceutical industry involved in the opioid crisis.

The federal government on Tuesday charged a major drug distributor — for the first time — for its role in perpetuating the country’s deadly opioid epidemic.

Rochester Drug Cooperative faces charges for conspiring to distribute drugs and defrauding the federal government — after the company didn’t report thousands of suspicious orders of opioids, including oxycodone and fentanyl.

Rochester is the sixth-largest distributor in the U.S., according to the New York Times.

The company, which as a distributor essentially links opioid makers and pharmacies, effectively admitted to committing the crimes it’s accused of in court on Tuesday.

“We made mistakes,” Jeff Eller, a Rochester spokesperson, said in a statement, according to the Times, “and RDC understands that these mistakes, directed by former management, have serious consequences.”

Separately, former chief executive Laurence Doud and former chief of compliance William Pietruszewski were reportedly charged, the Times reported.

According to the Times, the Drug Enforcement Administration investigated Rochester for two years, after the company violated terms of a previous civil settlement over opioids.

This is not the first time a drug distributor has faced serious legal consequences from the opioid crisis, with companies like Cardinal Health, CVS, McKesson, and Walgreens paying tens of millions of dollars in fines related to the opioid epidemic in recent years.

But this is the first time a distributor has faced federal criminal charges, similar to those filed against illicit drug dealers and traffickers.

The news of the charges comes as opioid makers and distributors face increasing legal consequences — in the forms of lawsuits, fines, and charges — for their involvement in today’s drug overdose crisis, which is the deadliest in US history.

Hundreds of lawsuits have now been filed against the companies. Several states are suing individually, and Oklahoma recently landed a legal settlement. A separate collection of about 1,600 lawsuits, largely from various levels of government, has been consolidated by a federal judge in Cleveland in an attempt to reach a landmark legal resolution to the opioid epidemic.

Since 1999, more than 700,000 people in the US have died of drug overdoses, mostly driven by an increase in opioid-related deaths. That’s comparable to the number of people who currently live in big cities like Denver and Washington, D.C.

Some estimates predict that hundreds of thousands more could die in the next decade of opioid overdoses alone.

The hope of the legal action against opioid makers and producers is not just to hold them accountable, which alone could help deter drug companies from misbehaving in the future, but also to get funds — whether through fines or other legal payouts — that could be used to pay for addiction treatment. Addiction treatment is notoriously underfunded in the U.S., with experts in recent years calling on the federal government to invest tens of billions of dollars in building up treatment infrastructure.

(For reference, a 2017 study from the White House Council of Economic Advisers linked a year of the opioid crisis to $500 billion in economic losses.)

Since companies like Rochester helped cause the opioid crisis, advocates argue that they should help pay for the consequences of the epidemic.

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