Here are the Voices the Giant Drug Distributors Don’t Want You to Hear

Williamson, W.Va., has become known as a center for the use of prescription opioid painkillers, which has worsened the outlook for many younger West Virginians. Photo: Tyler Evert/AP Photo
Williamson, W.Va., has become known as a center for the use of prescription opioid painkillers, which has worsened the outlook for many younger West Virginians. Photo: Tyler Evert/AP Photo

This story was originally published by Mountain State Spotlight. For more stories from Mountain State Spotlight visit their website.

The nation’s largest opioid distributors are pushing to block testimony from West Virginians who want to speak out about how the addiction crisis has ravaged their communities.

The companies’ lawyers say “personal stories of addiction” have no place at an upcoming trial that seeks to hold the drug wholesalers accountable for the opioid epidemic. They argue that such testimony would be nothing more than hearsay — and inadmissible in court. 

They also have asked a judge to muzzle potential witnesses who believe prescription painkillers acted as a gateway to street drugs like heroin and fentanyl. And they’re trying to put a lid on information about the recent conviction of one of their executives.

The Cabell County Commission and the City of Huntington, which are suing the distributors in federal court, have railed against the companies’ effort to exclude testimony from people who have suffered from the crisis. The two governments accuse McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen of unleashing the opioid epidemic by saturating the region with prescription pain pills. The witnesses’ stories are relevant and deserve to be heard, attorneys for the city and county say.

The bellwether opioid trial was scheduled to start in early January, but U.S. District Judge David Faber has postponed the proceedings, citing the recent surge of coronavirus cases in West Virginia and other states. Faber has yet to set a new trial date. The trial is set to take place at the Robert C. Byrd federal courthouse in Charleston.

Here are some of the stories drug distributors have asked Faber to bar.

Jan Rader

Jan Rader is Big Pharma’s worst nightmare. 

Rader is the long-time fire chief in Huntington, the first female fire chief in the state. She has saved hundreds of lives of people who have overdosed, and she has helped start innovative programs that cut Huntington’s overdose deaths in half.

Besides these accomplishments, Rader is also a dynamic public speaker; her TED talk has gotten more than 1.8 million views and she had a lead role in a documentary film, “Heroin(e),” which was nominated for an Oscar. 

That makes Rader a formidable force if she’s allowed to testify.

“If I get to testify, and I hope I do, it will be about what we as a community have seen and experienced,” Rader said in an interview with Mountain State Spotlight. “All of these [companies] have some culpability in cleaning up the mess they helped to create. I think this story should be heard by the entire country and the entire world.”

One of the links the drug distributors want to keep Rader from making is connecting their prescription opioids to street drugs like heroin and fentanyl. 

During Rader’s deposition in June, the companies’ lawyers asked Rader how many people addicted to heroin or fentanyl started by taking prescriptions like OxyContin or hydrocodone.

“About 80 percent,” she said.

“And about how many people have you talked to and asked that question, how they started?”

“Hundreds and hundreds,” Rader responded.

That counters the distributors’ argument that people have been mostly overdosing on street drugs in recent years, not the prescription opioids the companies deliver to pharmacies and hospitals. They leave out how people suffering from opioid use disorder became addicted in the first place.

“Addiction, substance [use] disorder, is a disease, something you’ll be dealing with the rest of your life,” Rader said. “With the damage that’s been done here, it will take decades to get back to normal. And it’s all because of greed.” 

Kelli Sobonya

On a Friday afternoon in July, Kelli Sobonya didn’t hold anything back when a drug company lawyer pressed her about people she knew who were addicted to opioids. 

Her cousin died of an overdose. Her nephew, facing addiction to prescription painkillers and later heroin, had been in and out of jail over the past decade. Several friends in retirement were now raising their grandchildren whose parents had fatally overdosed.

“I mean, I’ve known so much pain from this opioid addiction,” Sobonya told lawyers while giving a deposition last summer. “I’m sorry. I’m getting emotional because I know the effects of what the opioids have done to their friends and families.”

Now, the drug distributors want to stop Sobonya, a Cabell County commissioner, from talking about those struggles

The companies’ attorneys characterize Sobonya’s testimony as “hearsay” and “irrelevant.” They argue that Sobonya can’t tie any of her stories to any specific prescription opioids delivered by distributors, and they wouldn’t be able to cross-examine any of the people Sobonya brings up.

But Sobonya told Mountain State Spotlight that she hopes to speak out, if there’s a trial.

“Those stories need to be told, their faces need to be seen,” she said. “People need to hear what all these families have gone through, the lives that have been lost or forever changed.”

Twelve years ago, Sobonya’s nephew became addicted to prescription opioids in high school, after his shoulder was injured during a football game.

“He’s still in the throes of addiction,” she said. “He’s been arrested multiple times.”

Her cousin, who lived in Huntington, was prescribed opioids after injuring her back at work.

“We buried her this year,” Sobonya said of her cousin who overdosed. “She left behind a 14-year-old son.”

Sobonya, a former Republican legislator, said one of her friends is raising three granddaughters. The youngest was a year old when her mother overdosed and died; Sabonya still remembers the phone call she got from her friend, screaming and crying, after the daughter overdosed while waiting for a treatment bed at a drug rehab facility.

“Our Cabell County citizens are raising grandchildren when they should be enjoying retirement,” Sobonya said. “It’s a lifetime commitment. And when they get older and die, who’s going to care for these children?”

David Gustin

The drug distributors aren’t just trying to block West Virginians with first-hand experience dealing with the fallout from the opioid crisis. If they have their way, you also won’t be hearing from one of their own — McKesson’s former regulatory affairs director, David B. Gustin — at the upcoming trial.

The companies are seeking to screen off evidence about Gustin’s guilty plea, conviction and sentencing in October. 

Gustin struck a plea deal with federal prosecutors, admitting he failed to report a Kentucky pharmacy’s extraordinarily large and suspicious orders of prescription pain pills. McKesson kept delivering painkillers to the drugstore, even after Drug Enforcement Administration agents sent the company a subpoena about the pharmacy and questioned Gustin.

The distributors have argued that Gustin’s conviction was “inadmissible hearsay” based on “unproven charges,” according to court documents 

The City of Huntington and Cabell County want to present details of Gustin’s criminal prosecution at the trial. 

Gustin, who worked at McKesson for 21 years, was responsible for stopping powerful painkillers from being diverted to the black market in 15 states, including West Virginia. He oversaw McKesson’s warehouse in Washington Court House, Ohio, which shipped pain medications to Cabell County and Southern West Virginia. 

As regulatory affairs director — a job which court documents filed by his lawyer argue Gustin wasn’t qualified for — Gustin’s duties included setting monthly limits on the number of painkillers pharmacies could order. McKesson frequently raised those caps after pharmacy owners complained. 

In March 2019, Gustin was indicted on felony charges that he conspired with others to illegally distribute the painkillers oxycodone and hydrocodone, as well as an anti-anxiety medication. After agreeing to plead guilty to a lesser misdemeanor charge, he was sentenced to two years of probation.

Gustin left the company in 2016. He’s now retired.

“The past 18 or so months have been a living nightmare for him and his family,” Gustin’s lawyer to a federal judge in court documents. “Undoubtedly, this prosecution has sent shockwaves through many corporate compliance departments. The message has been sent.” 

The lawyer did not respond to a request for comment last week.

Connie Priddy

Connie Priddy is the program coordinator for the Huntington opioid Quick Response Team.

The program, run in conjunction with Cabell County EMS, aims to re-establish contact with people who have had suspected overdoses within 24 hours to 72 hours of their call to 911.

“It’s like a check-in,” Priddy said. “Just to say ‘hey, we’re here for you. And there are treatment options when you’re ready.’”

Her job has connected her with health care workers across the country, and placed her on panels in Washington, D.C., where she’s presented on the model that Huntington has used in its fight against the opioid epidemic and worked to help others start the same in their own communities.

A big part of the job is data collection — creating new ways for EMS workers to record suspected overdoses, even if the call to 911 was made for something different. And Priddy likes data. During her deposition in Huntington last summer, she made that clear. 

It’s the personal stories, Priddy told Mountain State Spotlight, that the drug companies want to hush at trial.

“I think that what the pharmaceutical companies don’t want to hear is that it’s not just a few individuals that have some kind of moral failing,” Priddy said. “I think it’s so easy to say, you know, Huntington deserved this, these people made a choice. But it can be anyone.”

Priddy, a Huntington native, has spent her entire life in the city. She has watched Huntington change before her eyes, as pills poured in and people were left behind.

Before she helped establish the overdose response team, she spent 30 years working on the frontline as a health care worker, mostly as a helicopter nurse. Priddy has seen a lot of trauma, responding to the region’s most critical calls. It’s a day in the late 2000s that sticks with her the most.

“In one day, I flew three separate people. One had an amputated hand, another was a transplant patient and the third had a heart attack. Three separate issues,” said Priddy, who was assigned with taking down medical histories during the flights.

The common thread?

“All three of those individuals told me they were on 160 milligrams of OxyContin,” Priddy said. “None of these people, from my perspective, had chronic pain… but somebody was prescribing it for them. It was part of their medical history. It was legal.”

And that, says Priddy, is where this crisis began. In the years that followed, as prescriptions dried up, people turned to what they could afford: heroin.

“You know, the pharmaceutical companies don’t want anybody to speak about that. I was there on the front lines the whole time. I saw it,” Priddy said. 

“They don’t want you to know that it’s real people. Where you see these individuals today is not where they started out. You see them walking in the street, you see them homeless.” 

“You didn’t see them years ago, when they were a little girl swinging in her backyard,” she continued. “They don’t want you to see that. They want you to see these individuals that seem so dark and flawed, and think that they somehow created this themselves. That’s just not true.”

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