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Pharmacies Stand Trial Over Opioid Crisis

by William Henken |  ❘ 

CVS, Walgreens, Walmart Face Lawsuit

Two Ohio counties, Lake and Trumbull, filed a lawsuit in 2018 against CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, and Giant Engle for their part in the Opioid epidemic; after delay, the federal trial of the 4 pharmacies began October 4th.

In his opening remarks, Mark Lanier — attorney for the 2 Ohio counties — declared major pharmacies had “dispensed like a vending machine,” elaborating that the massive companies had failed to adequately train and hire pharmacists and had not prevented the shockingly high quantities of addictive medications they were distributing from ending up on the black market.

The Washington Post reports that, over the course of 8 years, pharmacies in Lake and Trumbull counties filled enough Painkiller prescriptions to, “provide about a dozen doses to each man, woman and child who lived there every 12 months.”

Attorney for Walgreens Casper Stoffelmayr put the blame on drug makers, defending the pharmacies on trial by saying that it was manufacturers who, “tricked doctors into writing way too many pills” and that “Pharmacists… don’t tell doctors what to prescribe.”

While it may be true that pharmacists don’t tell doctors what to prescribe, large pharmaceutical retailers like CVS and Walgreens do appear to be ignoring doctors’ instructions around safe dosing levels and requesting refills even when they’re not needed; additionally, evidence shows these companies are severely overworking their staff in ways that can be disastrous to both employees and patients alike.

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Pharmacies Are “Understaffed And Chaotic”

The New York Times last year published a bombshell report that found many pharmacists’ workplaces — including those of companies like CVS and Walgreens, pharmacies now on trial — to be “understaffed and chaotic.”

Per the Times, pharmacists “struggle to fill prescriptions, give flu shots, tend the drive-through, answer phones, work the register, counsel patients and call doctors and insurance companies… all the while racing to meet corporate performance metrics.” Some pharmacists have even reported developing kidney conditions from denying themselves trips to the bathroom.

One pharmacist, writing to their state pharmacy board, highlighted how harmful working conditions like these are to patients, proclaiming that, “I am a danger to the public working for CVS.” Another said that, “Mistakes are going to be made and the patients are going to be the ones suffering.”

The Times’ report chronicled several such mistakes, many made by the pharmacies now on trial, which have included a teenage girl getting blood pressure medicine instead of her normal asthma treatment as well as an Illinois man who went to the ER after administering to his eyes medicine he thought was eye drops; the man incorrectly received ear drops instead.

Perhaps even more worryingly, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has voiced concerns about CVS; the APA claims that the pharmaceutical retailer regularly disregards instructions from doctors in order to dispense to patients more medication than has been medically recommended.

One physician shared a troubling account also reported by others — that his office receives more refill requests from pharmacies than the prescriptions themselves actually merit; the Times attributed these extraneous and erroneous refill requests to both “automated systems designed in part to increase sales” and “pharmacists… who said they faced pressure to reach quotas.”

Opioid Lawsuits Have Cost Billions

Ohio’s Lake and Trumbull counties are far from the only counties affected by the fallout of large pharmaceutical retailers’ decisions to prioritize profit over patient and pharmacist safety. In 2019, after Lake and Trumbull’s lawsuit was filed but before the trial began, the Tampa Bay Times reported that “hundreds of millions [of Opioids] streamed through grocery stores and chain pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens,” emphasizing 1 Walgreens — located in a city of less than 3,000 people — that “received an average 74,706 pills per month.”

That’s more than 25 pills per resident per month.

Florida has acted as a major source of Opioids for entire nation; Dave Aronberg, a former member of the Florida State Senate, declared that Florida “became the pill suppliers for the rest of the country,” after pharmacies, including pharmacies now on trial, dispensed such disproportionately high numbers of Opioids.

In July of this year, America’s top 3 drug distributors and Johnson & Johnson agreed to pay $26 billion to settle thousands of lawsuits concerning the Opioid crisis; none of the companies admitted to any wrongdoing. In August, pharmaceutical retailer Rite Aid settled with Lake and Trumbull counties — the same counties now squaring off against CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, and Giant Engle in court.

According to Reuters, Rite Aid settled “just over a month before the case was set to go to trial,” and parties involved, “did not reveal the terms of the deal.”

The current pharmacy trial will likely last for weeks — and the stakes are huge. According to NPR, “If the companies are found liable, federal Judge Dan Polster will later determine the amount of damages to be paid.” Per NPR, those damages could be extensive: “If the companies lose this fight, they wouldn’t just have to pay for drug treatment. They could eventually be required to compensate governments all over the U.S. for everything from larger foster care programs to a wide array of costs.”

There’s certainly no shortage of costs associated with the devastation of the Opioid epidemic and its architects; overdoses involving Opioids killed an average of 191 Americans every day last year.

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