Photo by Lauren Peace

At the height of West Virginia’s opioid epidemic, executives at a leading drug distributor exchanged emails making light of the crisis. 

The emails were put forth by Cabell County attorney Paul Farrell Jr. during trial at U.S. District Court in Charleston. The trial pits the county and the city of Huntington against the nation’s three largest drug distributors, who they argue fueled the overdose crisis.

In one, shared on Thursday, AmerisourceBergen executive Chris Zimmerman shared a lyrical parody of the theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies,” making fun of “a poor mountaineer” who purchased pills at a “cash ‘n carry” pain clinic. 

Another was titled “OxyContinVille” and included a parody of a Jimmy Buffett song that described driving from Kentucky to buy pills. 

In a third email, a member of Zimmerman’s team wrote, “One of the hillbilly’s must have learned how to read :-)” in response to an email detailing Kentucky’s new opioid regulations.

Zimmerman apologized in court for the contents of some of the emails, including the use of the term “pillbillies,” which he said referred to drug dealers, not patients. 

“I shouldn’t have sent the email,” he said, but added that he took the attacks upon his credibility “personally.”  He said the documents were cherry-picked out of context and defended the corporate culture at AmerisourceBergen, one of the three opioid distributors on trial in Charleston, and said it was of the “highest caliber.” 

But Farrell disagreed. “It is a pattern of conduct by those people charged with protecting our community — and they’re circulating emails disparaging hillbillies,” said Farrell.

Deflecting responsibility for the epidemic

Thursday was the second day of Zimmerman’s testimony, during which he acknowledged the “devastating effect” of the opioid epidemic but deflected responsibility — blaming, in turn, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and then lower-level employees at his company. 

As senior vice president and head of investigations for one of the largest companies in the United States, Zimmerman’s role at AmerisourceBergen was to oversee compliance of the distribution chain, including marking suspicious orders of opioid pills that the company shipped by the millions between 2006 and 2014.  

Plaintiffs assert that Zimmerman’s team had a responsibility to prevent such shipments from going through — shipments that earned AmerisourceBergen a profit at West Virginia’s expense. But Zimmerman said from the stand on Wednesday that plaintiffs were conflating his company’s role in regulating the shipments of pills.

“A suspicious order is not a bad order,” Zimmerman said. “When we stop an order, it affects patient care.”

That was in response to questions raised by Farrell regarding Zimmerman’s role as head compliance officer. Plaintiffs argue that distributors are responsible for fueling the addiction crisis in the Mountain State by flooding the region with pills at a higher rate than the rest of the country. Certain pharmacies in small towns received upwards of 100,000 opioid pills in a single month at the height of distribution.

“We’re a company, we’re not an enforcement agency and we’re not a regulatory agency,” Zimmerman said, arguing that it was the DEA’s responsibility to revoke the licenses of suspicious pharmacies, rather than the distributor’s responsibility to prevent suspicious shipments from going through.

Low-level employees — the “pickers,” responsible for fulfilling orders in distribution warehouses — were supposed to call-in reports of suspicious orders to the DEA, Zimmerman said, as part of an monitoring program that he said he’d worked with the regulatory agency to design over his three decade career at the pharmaceutical distributor. 

But the program didn’t work, and in 2007 the DEA shut down one of AmerisourceBergen’s distribution centers for failing to keep control over controlled substances. 

To reopen the center, the distributor’s lawyers reached a settlement with regulators: in a letter, they agreed to halt any suspicious orders until they could be investigated.

“The DEA has had frequent, direct telephone contact with Chris Zimmerman… in order to implement the technical exchange of electronic information, which [AmerisourceBergen] is to provide to the DEA under the agreement,” the letter stated.

“Any orders which the local distribution center cannot confirm as legitimate are to be ‘held.’…  The remaining orders will be fully investigated by [AmerisourceBergen] national investigatory group, under Vice President Zimmerman’s discretion and they will not be shipped unless they can be confirmed as bona fide.”

Following further questioning of Zimmerman, U.S. District Judge David Faber denied the introduction of more emails exchanged between members of his team, despite acknowledging that they revealed insight into attitudes within the company at the time.  

In 2011, after Florida passed legislation to crack down on pill mills, Zimmerman sent a team-wide email joking that the “Pillbillies” would head north to Georgia and Alabama instead. Later, a corporate investigator forwarded an email titled “Oxycontin for kids” with a picture of a Kellogg’s cereal box altered to read “SMACK.” “You’re just a barrel of laughs today,” responded a coworker.

In another email, a senior director under Zimmerman, Steve Mays, responded sarcastically to the threat of legal action by West Virginia cities and counties against the company — as well as a new fee on opioids proposed by Sen. Joe Manchin to fund substance abuse treatment efforts.  “I guess if all the distributors stopped shipping [controlled substances] into WV the problem would be solved, correct?” he wrote

Reporter Eric Eyre contributed to this story.

This story has been updated.

Lucas Manfield is a former Report for America corps member who covered business and economic development for Mountain State Spotlight. He has covered housing, health care and government accountability...

Lauren Peace is a Report for America Corps Member who covers public health.