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Boone officials drop suit against alleged 'pill mill' pharmacies

MADISON, W.Va. -- In a split vote Tuesday, the Boone County Commission dropped a lawsuit intended to reduce prescription drug abuse by targeting alleged "pill mill" pharmacies in Southern West Virginia.

Two weeks ago, commissioners voted unanimously to file the lawsuit against six pharmacies.

But commissioners said Tuesday they changed their minds after speaking with state Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, about Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's 2012 substance abuse bill, which tightened restrictions on prescription pills.

"I just think it was done wrong," said Boone County Commissioner Eddie Hendricks, who voted to withdraw the lawsuit. "There wasn't a great deal of evidence [against the pharmacies]."

Commission President Mickey Brown said federal, state and county investigators improperly influenced him to authorize to the lawsuit against the pharmacies - two of which are located in Boone County. Brown said he voted earlier this month based on "hearsay evidence."

"I questioned my decision," Brown said. "I know these are not pill mills."

The lawsuit named six pharmacies: Larry Drive-In Pharmacy in Madison; Medicine Stop in Uneeda; Meds 2 Go, Meds to Go Express and Alum Creek Pharmacy, all in Alum Creek; and Trivillian's Pharmacy in Kanawha City.

Brown said talks with Stollings, a Madison doctor, convinced him the commission was going about the prescription drug problem the wrong way.

Brown and Hendricks said Boone County pharmacies have a high volume of pain pill prescriptions because many coal miners and heavy equipment operators get injured and require medications to alleviate pain. Doctors also prescribe prescription painkillers to Boone County's many elderly residents because over-the-counter medications can cause liver damage, Brown said.

Pharmacists are just doing their jobs, he said.

"They're not doctors," Brown said. They're not law enforcement officers. They're there to fill prescriptions."

Matt Hatfield, a Boone County lawyer who represents two of the pharmacies, Larry's Drive-In and Medicine Stop, said the state Board of Pharmacy already tracks unscrupulous drug stores.

Hatfield praised the commission's 3-2 vote to dismiss the lawsuit.

"We are pleased. We are relieved. We believe [the commission] did the right thing," said Hatfield, who was accompanied by pharmacy employees at Tuesday's commission meeting in Madison. "They want to move on."

Boone County Commissioner Al Halstead, who voted against dropping the lawsuit, said something must be done to combat prescription drug abuse in the county. Boone County has the third highest death rate for drug abuse overdoses in West Virginia during the past decade.

Halstead said the lawsuit offered a new and innovative way to tackle the county's problem with prescription painkillers.

"I felt it was the proper thing to do," he said after Tuesday's vote. "We need help. Our people need help."

Charleston lawyer James Cagle, who filed the lawsuit earlier this month, said he was disappointed by the commission's about-face. Cagle said county prosecutors, drug enforcement agents and private investigators helped identify the pharmacies named in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleged the "pill mill" pharmacies turned a blind eye to the prescription drug problem and knew many of the pills they distributed weren't being used for medical purposes.

"We had a fact-based complaint," Cagle said.  

Boone County commissioners are the second group of elected officials to drop a lawsuit against pharmacies in West Virginia this year.

In August, the McDowell County Commission voted unanimously to authorize Cagle to sue pharmacies in that county. Last week, McDowell commissioners voted unanimously to withdraw the lawsuit.

Tomblin's 2012 substance abuse bill required pain management clinics to secure licenses with the state. The bill also upgraded the state's controlled substances database so that it flags suspicious prescriptions and purchases of pain pills.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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