CHARLESTON — While West Virginia has long been known as ground zero for the opioid epidemic, with the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation for nearly a decade, data released by The Washington Post confirms that the region of Appalachia known for high rates of drug-related deaths has also received inordinate amounts of pain pills compared to other states and regions.
Earlier this week, The Washington Post released nationwide, county-level opioid distribution data that the government and pharmaceutical companies had sought to keep secret. Over a seven-year period, companies that make and distribute hydrocodone and oxycodone pain pills sent drastically more of those opioids to places in rural, southern West Virginia, when comparing pills sold to county population, than nearly anywhere else in the country.
The Post observed “a virtual opioid belt of more than 90 counties stretching southwest from Webster County, W.Va., through southern Virginia and ending in Monroe County, Ky.”
From 2006 to 2012, Mingo County received more hydrocodone and oxycodone pain pills, on a per capita basis, than any other county in the country, except for two counties in South Carolina and Kansas that distributed more pain pills than most because they hold Veterans Affairs Department distribution pharmacies.
From 2006 to 2012, there were 38,269,630 prescription pain pills, enough for 203 pills per person per year, sent to Mingo County.
During that same time period, there were 45,586,800 prescription pain pills, enough for 179 pills per person per year, sent to Logan County.
The two counties with Veterans Affairs Department distribution pharmacies and Whitley County, Ky., were the only counties, on a per capita basis, that received more hydrocodone and oxycodone pills than Logan County.
Just because pills were distributed in a county does not mean those pills were consumed in that county. But West Virginia has had the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation since 2010.
An analysis by The Register-Herald of state Department of Health and Human Resources data found that from 2006 to 2012, an estimated 223 people died of drug overdoses involving at least one opioid in Logan and Mingo counties.
In Mingo County, Strosnider Drug Store Inc. received the most pills, with more than 13 million pills. James P. Wooley, of Louisa, Ky., a former West Virginia pharmacist, was sentenced in 2012 to six months in federal prison for conspiracy to acquire or obtain controlled substances by misrepresentation, fraud, forgery, deception, and subterfuge, according to an FBI news release. He was the owner and operator of the company, which conducted its business operations as SAV-RITE Pharmacy in two locations near Kermit in Mingo County.
In Logan County, Family Discount Pharmacy in Mount Gay distributed the most pain pills during that period, with nearly 13 million prescribed.
Bypass Pharmacy, a small chain of pharmacies, purchased that pharmacy in March, according to Melanie Blankenship, a pharmacist who said she also began working there in March. A message left with Blankenship for the current owners, who she said spend much of their time in India, was not returned.
The Charleston Gazette-Mail’s Eric Eyre won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 after he reported in 2016 on 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills distributed in West Virginia from 2007 to 2012, while 1,728 West Virginians fatally overdosed on those two painkillers. The Charleston Gazette-Mail also provided county-level data for West Virginia at the time.
The coverage resulted in lawsuits against drug distributors and manufacturers throughout the country. Earlier this week, The Washington Post made public county-level data for the entire United States, the result of a yearlong court battle by that paper and HD Media, which purchased the Charleston Gazette-Mail in 2018.
The data shows that The Register-Herald region of southern West Virginia, particularly Wyoming, Nicholas, Greenbrier, and Raleigh counties, was also particularly hard-hit by the flood of pain pills.
From 2006 to 2012 there were 17,911,380 prescription pain pills, enough for 107 pills per person per year, sent to Wyoming County.
From 2006 to 2012, there were 18,164,700 prescription pain pills, enough for 99 pills per person per year, sent to Nicholas County. There were 22,520,422 prescription pain pills, enough for 91 pills per person per year, sent to Greenbrier County.
From 2006 to 2012, there were 51,197,920 prescription pain pills, enough for 93 pills per person per year, sent to Raleigh County. There were 20,031,940 prescription pain pills, enough for 62 pills per person per year, sent to Fayette County.
From 2006 to 2012, there were 4,515,340 prescription pain pills, enough for 47 pills per person per year, sent to Summers County. There were 2,868,370 prescription pain pills, enough for 30 pills per person per year, sent to Monroe County.
An analysis by The Register-Herald of DHHR data found that during that time, an estimated 616 people in The Register-Herald’s region died of an overdose involving at least one opioid.
From 2006 to 2012, there were 853,486,418 prescription pain pills supplied to West Virginia. In a state of 1.8 million, that’s equal to about 79 pills per person per year.
Nationwide, just six companies distributed 75 percent of the pills: McKesson Corp., Walgreens, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, CVS and Walmart, according to The Washington Post. Three companies manufactured about 88 percent of the opioids: SpecGx, a subsidiary of Mallinckrodt; Actavis Pharma; and Par Pharmaceutical, a subsidiary of Endo Pharmaceuticals.
In 2015, after a crackdown on pain pills, heroin became the drug most commonly found involved in drug overdoses in West Virginia. Heroin is another opioid that produces a similar high.
In 2016, fentanyl became the drug most commonly involved in overdoses. Fentanyl is also an opioid, but it’s an even more deadly drug that’s often cut with other substances, such as heroin.