The origin, evolution and astonishing scale of America’s catastrophic opioid epidemic just got a lot clearer. The drug industry — the pill manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers — found it profitable to flood some of the most vulnerable communities in America with billions of painkillers. They continued to move their product, and the medical community and government agencies failed to take effective action, even when it became apparent that these pills were fueling addiction and overdoses and were getting diverted to the streets.
This has been broadly known for years, but this past week, the more precise details became public for the first time in a trove of data released after a legal challenge from The Washington Post and the owner of the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia.
The revelatory data comes from the Drug Enforcement Administration and its Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System (ARCOS). It tracks the movement of every prescription pill in the country, from factory to pharmacy .
[Explore The Post’s database: Find the data for where you live]
“This really shows a relationship between the manufacturers and the distributors: They were all in it together,” said Jim Geldhof, a retired DEA employee who spent his 43-year career working on drug diversion cases and is now a consultant for plaintiffs in a massive lawsuit against the drug industry. “We’re seeing a lot of internal stuff that basically confirms what we already knew. It just reinforces the fact that it was all about greed, and all about money.”
ALSO NOTE THE ROLE OF INSURANCE COMPANIES, WHICH WILL OFTEN PAY FOR PILLS INSTEAD OF MORE EXPENSIVE SURGERY OR PHYSICAL THERAPY.
For the first time, a database maintained by the Drug Enforcement Administration that tracks the path of every single pain pill sold in the United States — by manufacturers and distributors to pharmacies in every town and city — has been made public.
The Washington Post sifted through nearly 380 million transactions from 2006 through 2012 that are detailed in the DEA’s database and analyzed shipments of oxycodone and hydrocodone pills, which account for three-quarters of the total opioid pill shipments to pharmacies. The Post is making this data available at the county and state levels in order to help the public understand the impact of years of prescription pill shipments on their communities.
These records provide an unprecedented look at the surge of legal pain pills that fueled the prescription opioid epidemic, which resulted in nearly 100,000 deaths during the seven-year time frame ending in 2012.
A county-level analysis of the cumulative data shows where the most oxycodone and hydrocodone pills were distributed across the country over that time: more than 76 billion in all.
The Post believes this is a critically important set of data, which is why we are making it public and accessible to readers and other journalists. We think there are hundreds of stories within this data set and need your help to understand what it means to you and your community.