As the opioid epidemic raged in 2011, employees of drug distributor AmerisourceBergen Corp. shared an email: a parody of the theme song for the “Beverly Hillbillies,” describing how “pillbillies” drove south to obtain drugs at Florida pill mills.
“Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed/A poor mountaineer, barely kept his habit fed,” the song begins, chronicling how Jed goes to Florida, which is described as having a “lax attitude” about pills, or “Hillbilly Heroin.”
The email was made public last week as part of a filing in a mammoth federal case in Cleveland, where thousands of cities, counties, Native American tribes and others have sued companies up and down the opioid supply chain. Plaintiffs’ lawyers allege AmerisourceBergen withheld documents during discovery, only producing them after two Ohio counties settled a landmark lawsuit, the first to come from the sprawling federal case.
Plaintiffs are now seeking sanctions and other actions against AmerisourceBergen, alleging the documents produced after the settlement “directly contradict factual and legal positions” the company took during the proceedings and “evidence a systematic failure” by the company to respond to discovery requests.
According to the filing, AmerisourceBergen shared more than five times the number of documents after the settlement as it did during the discovery phase of the case. AmerisourceBergen said the parody song was not written by a company employee and the documents were shared in other cases.
Paul Farrell Jr., one of the lead plaintiff lawyers in the Cleveland-based federal case, said the documents should have been offered during several queries for evidence. The timing of the document release, he argued, made it impossible for the public to be aware of the cache until after the settlement.
In October, AmerisourceBergen and three other companies reached a $260 million settlement with two Ohio counties, Cuyahoga and Summit.
“For 22 months, we engaged in discovery disputes, we spent millions of dollars and countless hours in discovery only to find out now that there’s some 400,000 documents that were withheld from discovery,” Farrell said. “Had we not discovered the discrepancy, these documents may not have ever seen the light of day.”
AmerisourceBergen spokesman Gabe Weissman said the company’s legal team will respond to the motion but it had already shared the documents in other cases.
“The plaintiffs are challenging whether certain documents that AmerisourceBergen has already produced in various cases around the country should have been produced earlier, in the Cuyahoga and Summit county cases in Ohio,” Weissman wrote in an email. “AmerisourceBergen stands by its document productions and will file a response at the appropriate time.”
AmerisourceBergen was one of the largest distributors of pain pills during the opioid crisis, accounting for 13 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pills, or 13.2%, distributed in the United States from 2006 to 2014, according to a federal drug database.
The email of the song is the only one of the documents referenced in the motion that has been made public. The email circulated among AmerisourceBergen staff on April 22, 2011.
“Sunny Florida is the place you ought to be/So they loaded up the truck and drove speedily,” the lyrics read. “South, that is. Pain Clinics, cash ’n carry. A Bevy of Pillbillies!” the email said.
Since 1999, more than 400,000 people in the United States have died of opioid overdoses. Nearly 16,000 people died of prescription opioid overdoses in 2011.
Appalachia, including West Virginia, southwestern Virginia and Kentucky, has had some of the nation’s highest rates of opioid overdoses. Florida became ground zero for pill mills in the early 2000s, and the route from Appalachia to the state became known as the “Blue Highway,” after the color of 30-milligram oxycodone tablets that were readily prescribed at pain management clinics.
The parody lyrics make light of the ease people had getting opioids from these clinics due to loose enforcement at the time in Florida.
“Well now it’s time to say Howdy to Jed and all his kin. And they would like to thank Rick Scott fer kindly inviting them,” the lyrics continue. “They’re all invited back again to this locality/To have a heapin helpin of Florida hospitality/Pill Mills that is. Buy some pills. Take a load home. Y’all come back now, y’hear?”
Scott, a Republican who was Florida’s governor in 2011, is now a U.S. senator. His office did not respond to a request for comment.
Weissman said the lyrics were shared among employees who focused on diversion control.
The email is “simply a demonstration of the fact that part of AmerisourceBergen’s comprehensive monitoring program includes tracking for potential illegal activity and prescription drug diversion trends via the internet,” he said. “Through this process our diversion investigators often discover and share content.”
Farrell said attorneys didn’t get the chance to ask the original author of the email when he was deposed in November 2018 where he got the lyrics, since they didn’t know of the email’s existence.
“Hailing from West Virginia, I don’t find these lyrics amusing,” Farrell said.