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The Opioid Crisis needs to be Passed on by Pharmaceutical Firms

John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, there is a scene in which a bank agent and a renter they are evicting have a conversation. More than 80 years ago, it was still there, but it is still applicable today. As I stood in a courtroom in Charleston, West Virginia, listening to a pharma company executive defend his business’s involvement in fueling the Opioid epidemic, those words sprang to mind.

The banker tells the tenant, “We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man. No, you’re wrong there – quite wrong there. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.” As it became evident that there was an issue, the CEO, a former compliance officer for one of the “Big Three” pharmaceutical corporations that jointly sent millions of prescription pain pills to the state, was asked why they had not stopped the shipments.

The senior vice president of regulatory affairs at AmerisourceBergen, Chris Zimmerman, said, “We’re a company. We’re not an enforcement agency and we’re not a regulatory agency.” Yet, even in life and death situations, the belief that a firm made up of individuals cannot be expected to behave like a person has proven incredibly robust. It has survived from before Steinbeck’s Great Depression period through today’s corporate boardrooms.

Its tenacity reveals something about how the Opioid crisis grew into the monster it is today. Authorities in the city of Huntington and Cabell County are demanding $2 billion from three big healthcare corporations, Cardinal Health, McKesson, and AmerisourceBergen, in a landmark, litigation presently underway in Charleston, in which the CEO was testifying. They accuse them of causing a “public nuisance” by failing to prevent unimaginably large quantities of prescription drugs from streaming into the county and city as addiction and overdose rates skyrocketed.

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