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Opioids on trial

Pulitzer Prize Winning Reporter Details Book About ‘Greatest Health Crisis in American History’

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Charleston-Gazette Mail reporter Eric Eyre at Washington and Lee University discussing his 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the excessive opioid pill shipments to a southern West Virginia community. Photo: Washington and Lee University live stream

Community-based efforts can make a real impact in the fight against the opioid epidemic and could benefit from additional funding. One question, though, is whether money from court settlements against drug manufacturers and distributors will trickle down to community efforts. 

For some insight, West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s new magazine Inside Appalachia guest host Giles Snyder spoke with Eric Eyre, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter whose exposure of the opioid epidemic in West Virginia won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. 

Read or listen to that interview below.


Cover of “Death in Mud Lick” by Eric Eyre.

GS: So what is it, more than 2000 local governments are involved in the national litigation?

EE: Yeah, there’s 2000 local governments and tribal governments that are involved. That includes states, cities, counties. The latest we’d heard that there was probably about $50 billion they were talking for a settlement. Obviously that’s up for discussion. There’s another $10 to $12 billion with Purdue Pharma.

GS: So where are we with the national litigation right now?

EE: It’s dragged out. We were in the courtroom for one of the cases  —  the Cabell-Huntington case was argued a week ago. It had been transferred from the Cleveland courtroom where the most of the 2,000 cases are currently housed. And we heard the arguments. I turned to somebody and said, ‘Man, this seems like Groundhog Day’, because I had been hearing this since 2016. I mean, these things have been dragging on and dragging on and dragging on. 

Paul Farrell, the plaintiff for the Cabell case, said he was ready to go right then and there, or at least within 30 days. The drug company said they wanted to wait at least 18 months, so the judge said, ‘Well, we’re not going to wait 18 months,’ but they didn’t set an exact trial date. But they’re talking about one in state court in New York that could go off in the next couple months. But the next big one would probably be the Cabell-Huntington opioid case. It was in consolidation in Cleveland, but they were successfully able to transfer it back to Federal court here with Judge Faber in Charleston, which everybody seems to think will make for a much speedier trial.

GS: You mentioned a lot of money at stake there that could benefit local efforts to recover from the crisis. What’s your sense about whether these local efforts will ultimately benefit, or is that still an open question?

Investigative journalist Eric Eyre. Photo: Credit Courtesy
 

EE: One thing they’ve worked out is they’ve created this program called the “negotiation class”, and that’s every city/county/town in the United States as part of this negotiation class. They will all band together, and if there was a settlement and 75 percent of all these entities approved it, they would get the money. 

But here’s the deal. There’s no stipulation that it would go to recovery. They’re arguing that this is a public nuisance issue. So conceivably, all these cities and towns and counties could take the money and use it for whatever they want. If they needed a new trash truck, if they needed to pave streets, if they needed to hire law enforcement officers, they could use the money any way they want it. So the recovery community’s really upset about that, that you know, the money’s not going to go to fix the problems that were caused.

GS: Going back to the tobacco settlement in the 1990s and checking out how that money was ultimately spent, tell us anything about what could happen here. I guess what I’m asking is, are there any lessons to be learned here?

EE: Yeah, well, the tobacco money was significantly more. It was $200 billion. So about four times as much as what they’re talking about here. But the same thing happened there. A lot of that tobacco money, which was supposed to go to be prevention efforts and such, wound up being spent by the cities for other things, which they considered more pressing, that really had nothing to do with the ill health effects of smoking.

GS: You wrote a few months back about one of the more heartbreaking aspects to all this. And that’s the babies who are born dependent on opioids, and how they seem to be left behind in the national litigation. Could you talk a little bit about where that issue is?

EE: Yeah, they’re stuck with the cities and counties, and I think that the cities and counties want them stuck there, because, you know, these are obviously the innocent victims of the opioid crisis. Their lawyers are desperately trying to get their cases severed and heard separately from the cities and counties. It just seems like they’re just completely different issues on the one side. There’s a lot of concern there’s going to be developmental delays, that type of thing. It’s going to impact their learning in schools. But so far, the judge in Cleveland has rejected all efforts, and there have been multiple efforts to carve out the baby cases from the other litigation, but so far, he’s rejected all those efforts.

GS: I’m going to switch gears on you now and mention that we ran into each other a year or two ago in Shepherdstown, while you were speaking about your reporting. You were writing a book on the opioid crisis back then. And now I understand, it’s going to be out soon.

EE: Yeah, it’s coming out March 31. It’s called “Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic.” It’s basically about how a tenacious lawyer and an ex con actually who had a drug peddling past and myself, all sort of banded together one community to uncover this massive pill dumping in Appalachia how, how these drug companies, and these drug distributors, flooded Appalachia, and frankly for the rest of the nation, with an excessive number of opioids, which of course sparked the greatest health crisis in American history.

GS: How much more reporting did you have to do for your book?

EE: I did a lot of extra reporting on impacts of the lobbying that was going on behind the scenes. When my articles came out, I mean, we mostly focused on Kermit, West Virginia, the town that had nearly nine million opioids in a town of like 300 people. But we found that that wasn’t some just outlier, that there were many communities in Appalachia in West Virginia, and other towns across the country that got a similar deluge of opioids.

Eric Eyre is a reporter with the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Giles Snyder is a newscaster with NPR. Their conversation is part of an episode of Inside Appalachia.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.