WEST VIRGINIA — About two million Americans are hooked on prescription painkillers. In 2012, 259 million prescriptions were written — that’s one bottle for every American adult. CBS News went to West Virginia, a state that is attempting a drastic solution: allowing addicts to sue the doctors who got them hooked.
Seventeen years ago, Willis Duncan’s life changed forever when a coal mining accident left him with a crushed sternum and broken ribs.
“If I didn’t have ten pain pills, I wouldn’t go to work. Bottom line,” said Duncan.
He developed a life-long addiction to painkillers when his doctor’s only “treatment” was a never-ending supply of pills.
Duncan said he would go in to get a check up, but the exam wasn’t done by a doctor. “The only time you went in to see a doctor was to get your pills raised.”
He would wait for hours to be seen at a clinic for just a few minutes, where 150 patients lined up every day.
Duncan said he never told a doctor he needed help. “Never. Because you’d get used to them, and you didn’t know how to function without them,” he explained.
The cash-only operation allowed doctors to clear as much as $100,000 a week. The clinic was raided and shut down in 2010.
Exam rooms were filled with piles of trash and files, loose prescription pads, syringes and starving birds stuck in roach-infested cages.
Hundreds of patient records were seized with thousands of undated and pre-signed prescriptions for addictive pain medications like Vicodin, Xanax and Lortab. The doctor in charge went to jail for six months for negligence.
“We are talking in a certain sense drug traffickers. They are doing nothing but writing and cranking out prescription after prescription after prescription,” said DEA agent Gary Newman.
Newman is part of a team currently investigating dozens of doctors, pharmacies and distributors throughout the state of West Virginia.
West Virginia has the highest rate of overdose deaths in the nation. Each year doctors write the equivalent of one painkiller prescription for every man, woman and child in this state of 1.8 million people.
In the last year, the West Virginia Department of Health inspected 19 pain clinics. Twelve were told to shut down.
One is run by doctor Michael Kostenko. He’s written more than 40,000 pain pill prescriptions over the last two years at his Coal Country Clinic. Kostenko was among those ordered to stop operating as a pain clinic, but remains open.
After weeks of trying to reach Kostenko, CBS News drove out to Coal Country Clinic at the end of a narrow two-mile logging road. Instead of finding the doctor, the team came face to face with a Rottweiler.
Shutting down these clinics can often take years because these are licensed doctors writing legal prescriptions.
“Therein lies the problem. You have to be able to prove in court that their prescribing was for a non-medical necessity, or in such an egregious amount that it was negligent,” Newman explained.
Among the 30 West Virginians now suing their doctors and pharmacies for enabling their addiction is Willis Duncan.
“They hurt a lot of people. I mean its a bad deal all the way around. I have nothing for them. Nothing for none of them.”
As for Dr. Kostenko, on Friday the state begins the process of seeking to shut him down permanently. His clinic is currently still operating. The state could also set a precedent by going after not just the doctors and pharmacies, but also the wholesale drug distributors in court.