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Walgreens, CVS and Walmart ordered to pay $650 million in opioid lawsuit

OxyContin pills at a Vermont pharmacy in 2013. (Toby Talbot/AP)

A federal judge ordered three of the country’s largest pharmacy chains to pay $650.6 million to two Ohio counties that they were found to have flooded with prescription painkillers. The court said Wednesday in a landmark judgment that CVS, Walgreens and Walmart must bear some of the cost that the opioid epidemic has wrought on Lake and Trumbull counties, outside Cleveland.

The award comes after a first-of-its-kind federal trial targeting the three major retailers, which have some of the deepest pockets left in the legal battle over the epidemic. Many other major drug distributors and makers have settled or filed for bankruptcy.

A jury ruled last year that the pharmacies played a significant role in the crisis faced by the two counties. U.S. District Judge Dan A. Polster in Cleveland wrote this week that the pharmacy chains had dispensed the drugs “without effective controls and procedures” to prevent the pills from being abused and resold and are thus partially responsible for the damage the epidemic has caused in the two communities.

The retailers will also be required to train personnel on the dispensing of controlled substances, create a hotline through which patients and employees can report inappropriate sales of painkillers, and appoint a controlled-substance compliance officer to review prescription-validation processes.

The order is expected to be a bellwether for thousands of other communities trying to hold pharmacies responsible for their role in the opioid epidemic, which has killed half a million Americans since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Earlier this month, a federal judge in San Francisco ruled that Walgreens fueled that city’s opioid epidemic by shipping and dispensing the addictive drugs without proper due diligence.

Federal law requires pharmacies to determine that prescriptions have been issued for legitimate medical purposes before filling them. The counties’ attorneys argued that the retailers oversupplied the blue-collar counties in Ohio with more pills than could have possibly been medically necessary. Between 2012 and 2016, pharmacies dispensed 61 million pills in Lake County, enough to supply every man, woman and child with 265 pills, lawyers have estimated.

The pharmacies have pushed back against the counties’ claims, instead blaming doctors for overprescribing.

Inside the sales machine of the ‘kingpin’ of opioid makers

Walmart said in a statement that the counties were “in search of deep pockets” and that the ruling was riddled with legal errors. It plans to appeal.

“Instead of addressing the real causes of the opioid crisis, like pill mill doctors, illegal drugs and regulators asleep at the switch, plaintiffs’ 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,” Walmart said.

CVS also said it would appeal, calling the decision a “misapplication of public nuisance law."

“We strongly disagree with the Court’s decision regarding the counties’ abatement plan, as well as last fall’s underlying verdict,” the statement said. “Pharmacists fill legal prescriptions written by DEA-licensed doctors who prescribe legal, FDA-approved substances to treat actual patients in need.”

“The court committed significant legal errors in allowing the case to go before a jury on a flawed legal theory that is inconsistent with Ohio law and compounded those errors in reaching its ruling regarding damages,” Walgreens said in a statement “As we have said throughout this process, we never manufactured or marketed opioids nor did we distribute them to the ‘pill mills’ and internet pharmacies that fueled this crisis.”

An expert who testified for the counties estimated that it would cost them about $3.3 billion to recover from the epidemic, although the judge accepted that some abuse and addiction would have occurred even without the retailers’ involvement. Polster ruled that the pharmacies must pay the two counties more than $300 million each in installments over the next 15 years.

In May, Walgreens settled a similar lawsuit, agreeing to pay $620 million to the state of Florida as a whole.

“I am grateful to the Court for recognizing the Opioid epidemic as a public health crisis. This decision holds Big Pharma accountable for the great harm and lives lost due to the overselling of Opioids,” Lake County Commissioner John Plecnik said in a statement. “We hope the legal precedent that Lake and Trumbull Counties have won together will set the stage for the rest of the nation and help end the Opioid epidemic.”