By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
In August, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians declared the opioid crisis a public nuisance. Now, the Tribe is filing litigation on the matter.
Tribal Council passed a resolution, submitted by Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed, during Annual Council on Monday, Oct. 16 that approves the filling of a civil action and directs Special Counsel to take action “against all manufacturers and wholesale distributors legally responsible for causing or contributing to the opioid epidemic plaguing our Tribe”.
Chief Sneed said declaring the opioid crisis a “public nuisance” in August was the first step in establishing legal standing for the Tribe to file the lawsuit. “The foundational part of the lawsuit looks to hold the distributors responsible for the epidemic…the lawsuit is based on a DEA rule that states that distributors are required to report to the DEA anytime there is a suspicious or irregular pattern in the number of pharmaceuticals being ordered by pharmacies or doctors. This was during the height of the pill epidemic when pain clinics were popping up all over the country.”
He told Tribal Council that the opioid epidemic has claimed over 200,000 lives nationally. “That is three times the number of deaths of U.S. soldiers in the Vietnam War.”
Chief Sneed said the lawsuit is about saving lives in the future as well as helping the Tribe pay for services related to the epidemic including the Snowbird Residential Treatment Center, the new needle exchange program, and the Crisis Stabilization Unit at the Cherokee Indian Hospital – all of which total between $6-7 million annually in costs to the Tribe.
“Should we prevail in court, any settlement funds would be designated for rehabilitation, education, and law enforcement,” he noted. “Once again, this would be the EBCI leading the way in Indian Country.”
He added, “That number is not going to come down anytime in the foreseeable future. In fact, the cost will probably increase year after year until we get a handle on this. Anything that we can do to help get funds that we, as the Tribe, have to pay for, these drug companies need to held accountable. This is a manufactured crisis.”
During discussion on the issue, Yellowhill Rep. Tom Wahnetah inquired, “Will this affect families that have lost loved ones if they choose to proceed with legal action against the pharmaceutical companies?”
Chief Sneed replied, “It would not. This is a totally separate approach, and this approach specifically deals with that DEA policy and the laws that say that the distributor has a responsibility to report any irregularities…that would be a personal injury case that would be completely separate from this lawsuit.”
Big Cove Rep. Perry Shell commented, “It’s a scary situation what’s happening at the federal level. They’re a part of this problem. But, I see where the Cherokee Nation filed a lawsuit as well. What’s the difference in what we’re doing and have we thought about partnering up with a class action with other Indian tribes?”
Chief Sneed answered, “Their suit is different and the route that they’re going and what they’re trying to accomplish is different. Ours is based specifically on this one DEA rule that the distributors are supposed to report these irregularities in ordering.”
He went on to praise the Cherokee Indian Hospital for its efforts, “Hats off to our hospital for taking steps to make sure there is not over-prescribing happening at our hospital.”
The Cherokee Nation filed a lawsuit against six companies (McKesson Corporation; Cardinal Health, Inc.; Amerisource Bergen; CVS Health; Walgreens Boot Alliance, Inc.; and Wal-Mart) in April “charting the companies with failing to prevent the flow of illegally prescribed opioids to men, women, and children in the Cherokee Nation.”
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker said at the time, “Tribal nations have survived disease, removal from our homelands, termination and other adversities, and still we prospered. However, I fear the opioid epidemic is emerging as the next great challenge of our modern era. 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 put profits over people while our society is crippled by this epidemic, are held responsible for their actions.”