As the opioid epidemic continues to kill people across the country, local governments are struggling to get a handle on the problem. More and more, states and municipalities are filing suit against pharmaceutical companies. That trend started right here, in the place that’s known as the “epicenter” of the opioid crisis.

West Virginia deals with the highest overdose death rates in the country, and it was the first state to file suit against quote, “Big Pharma.”  About a year ago, McDowell was the first county, Huntington the first city and the tiny town of Kermit the first town to follow in state leaders’ footsteps and file suit against pharmaceutical companies.

The hope is that a victory in these suits could provide money to help fund things like recovery centers, and more police.

Reporter Jessica Lilly visited Kermit to see how opioids have devastated the town, and why officials there are trying to recoup costs from out-of-state drug distributors.

Ground Zero

Kermit used to be a booming coal town. Named after Kermit Roosevelt, son of President Theodore Roosevelt, this town has also been called the “ground zero” for the opioid epidemic.

Pulitzer Prize winning report in 2016 by Eric Eyre in the Charleston Gazette found that wholesaler pharmaceutical companies flooded Kermit with more than 12 million hydrocodone tablets between 2007 and 2012.

The ratio of pills to people is staggering: about 30,000 pills for each Kermit resident.

A medical office was shut down, and a pharmacy is under new ownership after the former operators spent time in jail for operating a so-called “pill mill” network.

Residents say things have slowed down. They don’t see as many out of state license plates. The pharmacy parking lot is not as full.

But people in Kermit are still struggling with the aftermath of the pills that flooded their town.

Last January Mayor Charles Sparks filed a lawsuit on behalf of the town of Kermit. The suit names four pharmaceutical companies, the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy, and the former owner of Justice Medical Clinic. The suit is seeking compensation for damages to the town, and better monitoring of pills entering the town by the Board of Pharmacy.

In 2016, the majority of overdose deaths in W.Va. involved opioids. The CDC reports that opioid overdose deaths were five times higher in 2016 than 1999.

A Different Town

Councilperson Tammy Hodge says the town has really changed.

“In a sense we died,” Hodge said. ”It’s still a good town and it still have very, very good people in it, but it’s not the town that town that I grew up in.”

The fire station in Kermit serves this community, parts of Mingo County, and even parts of neighboring Wayne County. Wilburn Preece, the Kermit Volunteer Fire Chief. lost his brother, the assistant fire chief, four months ago to a drug overdose.

“I was the first one on the scene,” Preece said.

Preece’s brother, Timmy Dale Preece, was the youngest son in a family of 13 brothers and sisters.  Preece says his brother saved many lives during his 54 years, but he ended up losing his own.

“I miss him more every day. Every call we get I was used to having him there by my side and I don’t have him now,” he said.

Timmy Dale had apparently relapsed. He had battled drugs before. Willburn says he was injured in a car accident when he was 14 and ended up doctor shopping for pain pills.

New Future?

After his brother died, Wilburn pushed to get the opioid overdose reversal medicine Naloxone at the Kermit Fire Station. While Naloxone wouldn’t have saved his brother, Wilburn hopes he could save someone else’s life.

In just six weeks, Preece said he administered three doses and saved three lives.

Preece says the lawsuit filed by Mayor Charles Sparks on behalf of the town of Kermit has brought new hope to folks in the region.

Wilburn’s hope is that the fire department has enough money to continue to stock Naloxone, and maybe to build a recovery center close by. He would also like to see a new community center for the kids.

He says these investments would show they aren’t giving up on their town or their children’s future.

During a federal hearing in Cleveland earlier this month, Judge Dan Polster argued that the crisis is “100 percent man made.” He said he believes everyone from drug-makers to doctors, and even individuals share some responsibility for the crisis and haven’t done enough to stop it. The judge also urged participants in lawsuits against drug-makers and distributors to work toward a common goal of reducing overdose deaths.

We reached out to the defendants in the Kermit lawsuit.

  • Laurie K. Miller from the Jackson and Kelly law firm, representing Miami-Luken, wrote back to say in part … “Miami-Luken is aware of the allegations made in the Kermit case and plans to vigorously defend itself in that litigation.  Because this litigation is on-going, Miami-Luken cannot comment further on the matter.”
  • Justin C. Taylor with the Bailey and Wyant law firm representing the W.Va. Board of Pharmacy said, “Unfortunately, because this matter is in litigation and with the W.Va. Board of Pharmacy named as a defendant in numerous lawsuits, I cannot comment or give an interview. Furthermore, the W.Va. Board of Pharmacy also cannot give any statements or be available for interviews at this time due to the ongoing litigation.”
  • Cardinal Health said, “The people of Cardinal Health care deeply about the devastation opioid abuse has caused American families and communities and are committed to helping solve this complex national public health crisis. … We operate as part of a multi-faceted and highly regulated healthcare system – we do not promote or prescribe prescription medications to members of the public — and believe everyone in that chain, including us, must do their part, which is ultimately why we believe these copycat lawsuits filed against us are misguided, and do nothing to stem the crisis. We will defend ourselves vigorously in court and at the same time continue to work, alongside regulators, manufacturers, doctors, pharmacists and patients, to fight opioid abuse and addiction.”
  • And McKesson Corporation said in part “… This complicated, multi-faceted public health crisis cannot be solved by any one participant. It needs to be addressed through a comprehensive approach that includes the doctors, patients, pharmacists, insurance companies, government payers (such as Medicaid and Medicare), distributors, manufacturers, law enforcement and regulators.”
  • AmerisourceBergen said in part “… Beyond our reporting and immediate halting of tens of thousands of potentially suspicious orders, we refuse service to customers we deem as a diversion risk and provide daily reports to the DEA that detail the quantity, type, and the receiving pharmacy of every single order of these products that we distribute.”

This article was originally published on West Virginia Public Broadcasting.