TAHLEQUAH, Okla. –– The Cherokee Nation has filed a lawsuit in tribal court against McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc, CVS Health, Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., accusing the corporations of failing to prevent the flow of illegally prescribed opioids.

The petition filed by the Cherokee Nation states that according to the National Institute of Health prescription opioids killed 22,598 people in the U.S. in 2015. The suit claims there is an epidemic of prescription opioid abuse throughout the country and that the drug companies and distributors bear some responsibility.

In 2016, the U.S. Surgeon General declared the “prescription opioid epidemic that is sweeping across the the U.S. has hit IndianCountry particularly hard.”

In a press release, Principal Chief Bill John Baker said his and other tribes have survived years of adversities and have still prospered, despite hardship.

“However, I fear the opioid epidemic is emerging as the next great challenge of our modern era,” Baker said. “As we fight this epidemic in our hospitals, our schools and our Cherokee homes, we will also use our legal system to make sure the companies – who profit over people while our society is crippled by this epidemic – are held responsible for their actions.”

McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health, Walgreens and CVS have also been named in a similar federal lawsuit by two counties in West Virginia — which has the highest opioid overdose rate in the nation

Opioid diversion occurs whenever the supply chain of prescription opioids is broken, and the drugs are transferred from a legitimate channel of distribution to an illegitimate channel. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Diversion Control Division, health care professionals share a responsibility to prevent abuse and diversion of prescription medicine, which the defendants have been accused of not upholding.

The suit claims that both the pharmacy and distributor defendants were negligent in handling the supply of large quantities of prescription opioids.

“Most of these defendants have paid huge fines and penalties from the FDA for ignoring or violating federal laws,” said Todd Hembree, Cherokee Nation attorney general. “Unquestionably, they knew what was going on.”

In 2013, Walgreens settled with the Drug Enforcement Agency for $80 million, resolving allegations that it committed an unprecedented number of record-keeping and dispensing violations at various retail locations and distribution centers. CVS agreed to pay a $22 million penalty following a DEA probe that found employees at two pharmacies in Florida had dispensed opioids based on prescriptions that had not been issued for legitimate medical purposes. 

Hembree said the Cherokee Nation has devoted “several months” to preparing the suit filed today.

“We noticed a pattern of the results of the epidemic washing up on our shores for quite some time,” he said. “We took a step back and said, what is it that is causing all of these issues that are undoubtedly connected? And it was the opioid epidemic, so we’re going after the actors who have cause it.”

The Cherokee Nation is represented by special counsel Richard Fields of Fields PLLC and Boies Schiller Flexner partners Steve Zack and William Ohlemeyer. 

“I think this is a very momentous day for the Cherokee Nation,” Hembree said. “Bringing the case in our own tribal courts is a huge testament to sovereignty. We look forward to all of these defendants coming to Tahlequah to defend their actions.”

The full complaint, which was filed in Cherokee Nation tribal court, can be found at www.cherokeecourts.org

Crawford writes for the Tahlequah, Oklahoma Daily Press.