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  • Schuyler Beltrami

Three Biggest American Pharmacies Ordered to Pay Millions in Opioid Case

On Wednesday, a federal judge in Ohio ordered three of the largest pharmacies in the United States to pay more than $600 million in damages for their roles in the opioid epidemic, which has hit Ohio particularly hard. The judge’s reasoning for charging the pharmacies was their unwillingness to stop filling prescriptions for opioids even when it was clear that the drugs were being abused by patients. All three pharmacies plan to appeal the ruling.

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Two Ohio Counties to receive more than $600 million

On Wednesday, for the first time since litigations against pharmacies for their roles in the opioid crisis began, a firm money amount was ordered to be paid by three of the nation’s largest pharmacies. Walgreens, CVS, and Wal-Mart will be ordered to pay $650.5 million in damages for their part in the drug crisis, which has hit Ohio particularly hard. The money will go directly to two Ohio counties, Lake County, which includes the eastern suburbs of Cleveland, and Trumbull County in the state’s east near to the border with Pennsylvania. In total, the money ordered to be paid by the pharmacies represents one-third of the amount needed by the counties to fight and overcome the effects of the opioid epidemic in their counties. The federal judge in this case, Dan Polster, has overseen more than 3,000 litigation cases pertaining to the opioid epidemic and said during the trial proceedings that pharmacies bear just as much responsibility for the epidemic as drug manufacturers and drug distributors. According to the judge’s findings, the pharmacies continued to fill prescriptions for opioid drugs, despite clear signs of abuse by patients. Legal representatives from all three pharmacies immediately pushed back on the ruling and promised to appeal. In order to confirm that the money will indeed by paid by the companies, the companies are forced to adhere to strict monitoring by an oversight committee, which not only will ensure the money is paid to the counties, but also that the pharmacies change their behavior. The total sum must be paid within 15 years. Although federal mandates have put into place new rules on how pharmacies fill prescriptions for opioid drugs, additional oversight is needed, said the judge in his ruling. Speaking to the need of more oversight, Judge Polster said that all three pharmacies “largely ignored” his request to develop a roadmap to safer interactions with patients. Representing the two Ohio counties was lawyer Mark Lanier, who said in a press statement that “these companies are rending the fabric of society apart. They should not only show remorse, they should show they need to rectify what they’ve done. And they won’t do it. So the judge is doing it.” The cases in Ohio are just one of many which have been brought against pharmacies and drug manufactures in relation to the opioid epidemic over recent years.

“Regulators asleep at the switch”

All three of the pharmacies at the center of the litigation in Ohio plan to appeal the ruling. Representatives for Walgreens and Wal-Mart both laid the blame on so-called “drug mills” and online pharmacies for the problems associated with the opioid epidemic. “Instead of addressing the real causes of the opioid crisis, like pill mill doctors, illegal drugs and regulators asleep at the switch, the plaintiff’s lawyers wrongly claimed that pharmacists must second-guess doctors in a way the law never intended and many federal and state health regulators say interferes with the doctor-patient relationship”, said Randy Hargrove, spokesman for Walmart, in a press statement. Meanwhile, CVS came to the defense of their pharmacists, saying in a statement that “pharmacists fill legal prescriptions written by DEA-licensed doctors who prescribe legal, FDA-approved substances to treat actual patients in need.” The ruling in Ohio has largely been the exception rather than the rule when it comes to litigation about the opioid epidemic. With one estimate saying that as many as 20,000 towns and cities are looking to sue the drug industry for their role in the crisis, most lawsuits have been settled out of court. This is especially true in lawsuits against drug manufactures and distributors. According to reporting in the New York Times, earlier this month three of the largest drug distributors in the United States settled a lawsuit from more than a hundred cities and counties in West Virginia out of court, paying $400 million dollars in damages. This amount is more than $250 million less than the three large pharmacies had to pay to only two counties. Mr. Lanier, who was representing the two counties in court, hopes that this ruling will serve as a warning to other companies not to try their luck at a trial. “It is a heck of a lot cheaper to settle than it is to lose at trial”, he said after the ruling was handed out. In the face of the ruling in Ohio, settling may be the new course of action for the pharmacies, as the case in Ohio is far from the last that is targeting them. The next major litigation against the pharmacies is taking place in San Francisco where the city has looked to hold the pharmacies responsible for the opioid abuse epidemic occurring in that city. In that case, just as the one in Ohio and others across the country, city and county officials are looking to the pharmaceutical companies to refill city and county treasuries which have been depleted trying to fight the drug epidemic in the local area. It is unclear if the case in San Francisco will end in a trial or in an out-of-court settlement.

So far, drug manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacies in the United States have been ordered to pay upwards of $30 billion in lawsuits for their alleged roles in the crippling opioid epidemic.

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