This Aug. 29, 2018, photo shows an arrangement of prescription oxycodone pills in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)


HD Media

CHARLESTON - A federal appeals court in Cincinnati on Thursday denied a request by two drug companies that wanted a second hearing to argue why their prescription opioid data should be kept secret.

McKesson and AmerisourceBergen, two of the largest drug distributors in the nation, had contended that a June 24 Supreme Court decision in a Freedom of Information Act case, Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader, required that their prescription painkiller data remain confidential, even though a three-member panel of judges with the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled otherwise. The drug distributors wanted the entire Cincinnati-based appeals court, which has 16 judges, to re-hear the case.

Thursday's decision would seem to pave the way for the release of the companies' pill shipments from 2013 and 2014, following the unsealing earlier this summer of the painkiller numbers from 2006 to 2012. The ruling also is expected to make public thousands of reports filed by the companies about suspicious orders placed by their customers - mostly pharmacies ordering excessive numbers of powerful painkillers.

"The appeals court unanimously rejected the drug companies' attempts to block further disclosure of the Drug Enforcement Administration data," said Pat McGinley, who's representing the Charleston Gazette-Mail and Herald-Dispatch of Huntington in the newspapers' year-long battle to make the information public. "The door is now open for the court to release previously secret information about the evolution of the nationwide opioid crisis."

On June 20, the appellate judges overruled a federal judge who had declined to make public federal data that exposed prescription opioid shipments to every state, county, city and pharmacy in America. The appellate court decision, which came four days before the Supreme Court ruling, led to the release of the pain pill numbers over seven years.

HD Media, which owns the Gazette-Mail and Herald-Dispatch, along with The Washington Post, went to court last year to unseal the DEA database. Lawyers representing nearly 2,000 cities, towns and counties had been given access to the data as part of their lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors. The DEA and drug companies vigorously fought against the news organizations to shield the painkiller sales numbers from the public.

After the 6th Circuit's decision, U.S. Judge Dan Polster of Cleveland directed the release of the DEA data from 2006 to 2012, but postponed a decision on whether to make public more current data from 2013 to 2014.

The 2006 to 2012 data show that drug companies saturated the nation with 76 billion hydrocodone and oxycodone pain pills while overdose deaths surged, according to a Washington Post analysis. States such as West Virginia and Kentucky, which had the highest number of pills per resident per year, also had the highest overdose rates.

The drug companies have argued that the DEA should have stopped the flood of opioid painkillers, and that they only filled orders from licensed pharmacies.