Pharmaceutical Retailers Face Trial in Opioid Lawsuit

Walgreens and CVS Are Some of The Pharmaceutical Retailers Under Fire

Since the beginning of the opioid epidemic in 1999 to the year 2018, almost 450,000 people have died from an overdose involving prescription and illicit opioids. Highly addictive opioids like hydrocodone (Vicodin) and oxycodone (OxyContin) are prescribed for moderate to severe pain, but up to 29% of patients who take opioids for chronic pain misuse them. The high cost of these pills and difficulty in obtaining enough of them  to maintain their addiction has led many people to turn to illicit opioids like heroin or fentanyl. In years 2010 and 2013, there were rapid increases in overdose deaths because of these drugs. About 80% of heroin users misused prescription opioids first. The fact that opioids have negatively impacted the lives of thousands of Americans is undeniable, but there has been an ongoing debate over who to blame. Lawsuits have been filed against pharmaceutical companies, like in the case of Purdue Pharma where it was alleged that the company misled doctors and the public in promoting OxyContin, fueling the opioid epidemic. Now, pharmaceutical retailers are receiving similar scrutiny in a court filing from May 27, 2020, stating that, “pharmacies including CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens and Giant Eagle as well as those operated by Walmart were as complicit in perpetuating the crisis as the manufacturers and distributors of the addictive drugs,” according to a New York Times article.

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The complaint was filed in federal court by Ohio counties Lake and Trumbull and is set to be tried in U.S. District Court Judge Dan Polster’s Cleveland courtroom in May 2021. Ohio counties Cuyahoga and Summit are also suing the pharmacy chains on a different front and is set for November 2020. Ohio is not the only state taking action; New York State and 2 New York counties are also awaiting a new trial date, postposed by COVID-19. The Ohio complaint is stating that the pharmacy retailers have worked with drug manufacturers to promote opioids as “safe and effective.” The complaint states that CVS partnered with Endo Pharmaceuticals to send letters to patients, encouraging them to continue taking Opana, an opioid thats extended-release formulation was removed from the market by the FDA because of its high abuse rate. The complaint also states that CVS worked with Purdue Pharma to put on seminars for its pharmacists on how to reassure doctors and patients about the safety of OxyContin.

The complaint continues, stating that in Walgreen’s contract with AmerisourceBergen, Walgreens should be allowed to police its own orders without oversight from the drug distributor. Pharmacies are required to report suspiciously high orders of drugs to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), but the pharmacy chains under fire allegedly created ways to get around this law and told pharmacists to never refuse a prescription. In an interview on Cleveland.com, Timothy Johnson, an attorney for Discount Drug Mart, said, “The pharmacist is not supposed to be second guessing the medical necessity of the doctor’s prescription.” A statement from Walgreens said, “we strongly believe that the overwhelming majority of prescriptions dispensed were properly prescribed by doctors to meet the legitimate needs of their patients.”

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Opioid’s Impact on Ohio

According to the Ohio Department of Health, unintentional drug poisoning became the leading cause of injury death in Ohio in 2007, passing motor vehicle crashes. That trend continued into 2018. Earlier this year, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine created the RecoveryOhio Advisory Council to create recommendations on developing intervention programs in schools, outreach to at-risk communities, improving access to addiction treatment, and to fight against drug trafficking. While the number of opioid overdose deaths has slightly decreased in Ohio in recent years, it is still an issue for the state. The complaint states that the drugstore company Rite Aid sold 4.2 million doses of hydrocodone and oxycodone from 2006 through 2014 in Painesville, Ohio, a town with 19,524 residents. Within the same years, 31 pharmacies in Lake County, Ohio sold almost 64 million doses of oxycodone and hydrocodone to 220,000 residents. In Trumbull County, 28 pharmacies sold 68 million doses to 209,837 residents. That is 322 pills for every resident, including children.

The Tribune Chronicle, an Ohio newspaper, states that in the past there has only been 1 trial placing responsibility for the opioid epidemic on the drug industry. In that case, a judge ruled that Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries had to pay the state of Oklahoma $465 million, but the company is appealing. Now, Purdue Pharma and generic pharmaceutical company Mallinckrodt are filing for bankruptcy to settle thousands of lawsuits against them. The trials set later this year and next spring will examine the pharmaceutical retailer’s roles in distributing opioids to their stores and supplying them to patients.

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