Ohio Counties Sue Major Pharmacy Chains for Role in Opioid Epidemic

Lake and Trumbull counties in Ohio have filed a lawsuit against major pharmaceutical chains, including CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens, Giant Eagle, and Walmart, for their role in advancing the opioid crisis in those counties. The claim against the retailers is on two fronts: as distributors to their own stores, and as dispensers that are responsible for preparing and providing the medication directly to patients. The trial is scheduled for May 2021.

Between 2006 and 2014, the accused chains sold nearly 64 million doses of oxycodone and hydrocodone across 31 pharmacies in Lake County, which has a population of 220,000 people. That equals about 290 pills for each person in the county. In Trumbull County, 28 pharmacies sold almost 68 million doses to a population of 209,837, or more than 322 pills per person.

The chains are being accused of incentivizing pharmacists with bonuses for increased sales and partnering with opioid manufacturers to promote their products to pharmacists and even customers. The suit also asserts that the chains failed to enforce monitoring regulations at their distribution centers. Drug manufacturers and retailers are federally mandated to report suspiciously high orders to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

CVS did not establish a company policy for flagging suspicious orders until 2010, following a DEA audit, but reported only seven suspicious orders nationwide between then and November 2013. None of the reports were from Ohio. Similarly, Walmart did not file any suspicious order reports from their stores between 2007 and 2014, despite selling 6.4 million opioid pills across three Lake County pharmacies during that timeframe.

CVS defended its role in the sale of the drugs, saying, “Opioids are made and marketed by drug manufacturers, not pharmacists. Pharmacists dispense opioid prescriptions written by a licensed physician for a legitimate medical need.”

In a statement, Walgreens noted: “Prescriptions are written by doctors based on their medical training, experience and clinical judgment, and when a patient presents a prescription that gives no reason to question its legitimacy, the pharmacist is obligated to fill the prescription exactly as written.”

Source: The New York Times, May 27, 2020.