It’s called the Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Center, but it also could be called the house that prescription pills helped build.
The $80 million facility that opened last week adjacent to the University of Illinois Memorial Stadium was funded in part by the H.D. Smith Foundation of Springfield. Many of the officers of the Smith Foundation also were officers of the privately held H.D. Smith Wholesale Drug Co., a Springfield-based firm that until last year was one of the largest prescription drug wholesalers in the country.
It also was one of the largest suppliers of opioids to rural West Virginia, where, according to a Drug Enforcement Agency database disclosed by the Washington Post and the Charleston Gazette-Mail, some 853 million prescription pain bills were supplied between 2006 and 2012. By comparison, more than 1.9 billion pain pills were distributed in Illinois during the same period. Illinois’ population is seven times West Virginia’s.
In one especially hard-hit area of rural southwestern West Virginia — Mingo County — the DEA database found that enough pain pills were prescribed to supply each of the county’s 27,000 residents with 203 pills per year. By comparison, the average during the same period was 21 pills per Champaign County resident and 46 pills per Vermilion County resident.
Williamson, the Mingo County seat, had two pharmacies about four blocks apart where H.D. Smith supplied a combined 5 million doses of hydrocodone and oxycodone in two years, according to a report prepared by the House Energy and Commerce Committee staff. Williamson’s population was 3,191 in 2010.
H.D. Smith, which was sold last year for $815 million in cash to AmerisourceBergen Corp., another major prescription drug distributor, has not been found guilty of any wrongdoing in association with its sales in West Virginia. But it is one of several drug manufacturers and distributors to be sued and, in 2017, it paid $3.5 million as part of a settlement with the state of West Virginia. The attorney general’s office said that the payment resolved allegations that H.D. Smith failed to detect, report and stop the flood of suspicious prescription drugs into the state. H.D. Smith denied any allegation of liability.
Likewise, in testimony last year before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, former H.D. Smith president and CEO J. Christopher Smith, in response to the question, “Do you believe that the actions that you or your company took contributed to the opioid epidemic?” had a terse reply.
“H.D. Smith conducted itself responsibly and discharged its obligations,” Smith said.
But the December 2018 investigation by the House committee presents a different story. Among its findings:
— “H.D. Smith reported its concerns regarding the Tug Valley Pharmacy and Hurley Drug Company (in Williamson) to the DEA in April 2008, including that two doctors wrote 87 percent of the hydrocodone prescriptions filled by Tug Valley Pharmacy, and that a single doctor wrote 69 percent of the hydrocodone prescriptions filled by Hurley Drug Company. But the company did not stop doing business with either pharmacy at that time.”
— “Approximately six months after the company reported concerns about Hurley Drug Company’s opioid dispensing to the DEA, an H.D. Smith representative recommended increasing the pharmacy’s thresholds for controlled substances purchases, noting that the pharmacy did not ‘appear to (have) a high degree or risk to mitigate.’”
— “Between December 2007 and April 2009, H.D. Smith provided Sav-Rite No. 1 in Kermit, W.Va., (population 406) with more than 1.48 million doses of hydrocodone and oxycodone.”
— “H.D. Smith reported Sav-Rite No. 1 to the DEA in April 2008 ‘because it was ordering a significant amount of hydrocodone and approximately 25 percent of the hydrocodone prescriptions were written by Dr. Katherine Hoover.’ The company did not stop doing business with Sav-Rite No. 1 at that time.”
There are many more distressing disclosures in the report that taint not only H.D. Smith but other distributors, including AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health Inc., McKesson Corp., and Miami-Luken Inc., as well as the DEA.
“Enforcement actions over the last decade indicated distributors had difficulties complying with legal requirements,” the committee staff said politely in its conclusion. “In West Virginia, which has the highest overdose death rate in the country, distributors dispersed nearly 800 million opioids between 2007 and 2012, sending a massive number of pills to small, rural towns.”
During that same period 1,728 West Virginia residents died of overdoses of hydrocodone and oxycodone.
Meanwhile, $15 million of the $80 million cost of the lavish Smith football center on Fourth Street in Champaign will come from the H.D. Smith Foundation. The Foundation also is giving $5 million to other causes at the UI. The Smith donation to the football facility, now at $750,000, will be paid over time, not in one lump sum, said associate athletic director Kent Brown.
The donation comes from a foundation that as recently as 2016 reported $12.5 million in assets.
Some nonprofits, most of them museums, have sworn off taking any more donations from families associated with the opioid epidemic. Brown said the UI was aware of H.D. Smith’s involvement in the prescription drug plague well before it announced the multimillion dollar gift a year ago.
“From early conversations with Chris and Dale Smith about a possible transformational gift to the university, they were very proactive in informing us about H.D. Smith’s involvement in a May 2018 Congressional hearing and their former company’s commitment to assisting in the identification of potential strategies to address opioid diversion, an issue of national concern,” Brown said. “In the last three decades, H.D. Smith never was fined nor had its license suspended by the DEA. Our understanding is that it always endeavored to be a responsible member of a supply chain that prominently featured drug manufacturers, prescription-writing physicians, and prescription-filling pharmacies.”
Tom Kacich’s column appears on Sundays in The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.