Brick sign outside with words Cardinal Health and words superimposed over picture in white below saying Drug Cartel?

Any marijuana user knows failing a drug test will most likely cost you your job. Or, that getting popped for marijuana possession could ruin your career.

But what happens to a Fortune 500 company that’s been accused repeatedly over the previous decade by both federal and state law enforcement of breaking federal law by distributing massive amounts of opioids? A Fortune 500 company the Ohio Attorney General’s Office and others allege has helped fuel the heroin epidemic that’s killed tens of thousands?

If you are Dublin-based Cardinal Health, you pay a small fine and keep distributing huge amounts of opioids as your revenues go over $130 billion annually, that’s what.

You also pump Congress full of money so it hamstrings the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) from investigating opioid distributors, as told recently to 60 Minutes by a DEA whistle blower. And as for the founders of Cardinal Health, the Walter family, you become, over this same decade one of the richest if not the richest family in Central Ohio.

Cardinal Health is one of our region’s largest private companies and has over 37,000 employees worldwide. Cardinal Health is essentially a middle man, a wholesale distributor of pharmaceuticals and medical products to over 75 percent of hospitals and pharmacies across the United States, and should be commended for this. The company ranks 15th on the Fortune 500 list with annual profits over $1 billion annually.

But the future is precarious for Cardinal Health, or so common sense would suggest. Since the middle of last year, opioid-related lawsuits against Cardinal Health have come fast and furious. The City of Columbus and Franklin County filed suit. West Virginia and Kentucky, as well.

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office suit filed in February alleges Cardinal Health knew the volume of painkillers it was shipping was absurd, immoral, and the company was negligent because they weren’t policing their own supply chains, even though they had promised to do so.

But these lawsuits are far from the first suits and law enforcement warnings brought against Cardinal Health. The important question is: Will this latest round of lawsuits finally put an end to Cardinal Health dealing huge amounts of opioids?

The Free Pressspoke to Dan Tierney, spokesperson for the Ohio Attorney General’s (AG) office who confirmed their investigation into this matter is ongoing. Since 2010, the AG’s office is headed of course by Republican Mike DeWine, who’s running for Ohio governor this year.

“We have a strong case to prove the allegations that we are making,” said Tierney. “(And) If it proceeds down a normal path of a jury trial as we’ve requested there’s going to be further discovery, there’s going to be further information gathering.”

The Ohio AG lawsuit alleges the DEA in 2006 and 2007 demanded Cardinal Health report suspicious opioid orders to the agency as required by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

Yet between 2007 and 2012, Cardinal Health continued shipping huge amounts of painkillers – 240 million doses worth – to West Virginia, this according to the DEA. Over 300,000 pills went to the West Virginia town of Van, which has 200 residents. In addition, a recent National Geographic investigation claims 1 in 4 residents of Huntington, West Virginia are now battling heroin addiction.

In 2008, Cardinal Health paid a $34 million penalty for failing to report thousands of suspicious orders of hydrocodone. In 2012, they paid another fine for shipping 12 million oxycodones to only four Florida pharmacies (ie, pill mills). And in 2016, the DEA again busted Cardinal Health for shipping suspicious amounts of opioids to the same Florida distribution center implicated in 2012.

In its complaint, the Ohio AG’s office states 14 Ohioans on average are dying each day due to opioid overdoses and, in 2016, had more prescription opioid deaths than any state in the nation.

The number of overdoses is gut-wrenching and so are the epidemic’s financial consequences. States and local municipalities have spent hundreds of millions for the remedy Narcan, rehabilitation, emergency room visits, and foster care for children of arrested parents. The AG’s office states newborns addicted to opioids spent 26,000 days in Ohio hospitals in 2014, costing $105 million.

So, how has Cardinal Health responded to this latest round of allegations?

“We’ve been committed to doing the right thing for an incredibly long time,” said Cardinal Health’s CEO Mike Kaufmann recently to Columbus Business First.

The Free Pressfinds his statement absolutely laughable, but then again the recent wave of overdoses in Columbus is nothing to laugh at.

Kauffmann, who receives an estimated annual compensation of $10 million, continued, “We really focus on knowing our customers in detail, whether that’s visiting the customers and looking at analytics of what they’re buying from us, and educating our sales staff.”

Was Cardinal Health in fact educating their sales staff who sold these massive amounts of opioids to West Virginia and Florida over the previous decade? Perhaps education in the sense they were seriously pressured to sell drugs that kill.

Kauffmann added Cardinal Health is in “an incredibly good position” to fend off these accusations.

Maybe so, if you consider how they sold out Congress.

According to former DEA official Joe Rannazzisi, who 60 Minutes said was one of their most important whistle blowers ever, Cardinal Health and other distributors, beginning around 2010, spent millions lobbying Congress and the Department of Justice, which oversees the DEA, to go easy on distributors.

Rannazzisi told 60 Minutes he noticed a major shift in the way prosecutions of big distributors were handled. Cases against distributors were either not given a green light or were bogged down by supervisors. He said his case load was significantly diminished and the DEA stopped freezing shipments of opioids, the agency’s toughest sanction against distributors.

In 2016, Congress passed the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, which further hindered the DEA from going after distributors that don’t report suspicious opioid orders.

Hopefully Ohio’s AG office has not been compromised by Cardinal Health as the DEA was.

“Certainly our initial claim will not be the final statements we make, or the final set of information that we gather as we proceed to jury trial which we requested,” said Tierney.

The Free Presswill try to hold the Ohio AG’s office to their word.

Appears in Issue: