Pharmacies are yet again the target of opioid litigation.
New Hampshire is suing some of the nation’s largest pharmacy chains for their alleged role in the opioid epidemic, becoming the latest state to take action against those involved in prescribing addictive medications. The lawsuit was filed by Attorney General (AG) John Formella, who says that Rite Aid, CVS, Walgreens, Walmart and others are the “last link in the opioid supply chain” and, as such, they are “the critical gatekeeper between dangerous opioid narcotics in the public.”
Some of the largest U.S. pharmacy chains have been the targets of various lawsuits since the peak of the crisis. Many plaintiffs believe that pharmacists should have reported suspiciously high orders of addictive drugs to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rather than simply turning a blind eye. Pharmacies have fired back that they were just doing their jobs – that the physicians ordering the drugs are the ones who should shoulder the blame for increasing overdose fatality rates.
Other lawsuits have criminally charged doctors who ran ‘pill mills’ and routinely overprescribed. However, these lawsuits don’t shield pharmacies from accounting for their part.
“As both drug distributors and the operators of chain pharmacy locations, these companies were in a unique position to more closely monitor the flow of these highly addictive drugs from their stores,” Formella said. “By bringing this lawsuit, we are attempting to hold them accountable for contributing to a crisis they helped create and that tragically led to the loss of life for thousands of people throughout New Hampshire.”
Opioids, both prescription and illicit (i.e., heroin), caused more than 500,000 deaths in 2020 alone, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This is a staggering number of fatalities in just one year, and experts believe that the number continues to rise.
New Hampshire has been one of the hardest hit states in the crisis and the state spent millions of dollars in federal funding three years ago to create a” hub-and-spoke model” called “The Doorway” which enables hospitals to coordinate with local providers to make sure that help is less than an hour away regardless of where users are in the state. While this has helped reduce the number of deaths somewhat, data shows that the overdose rate is still on the high end.
“By now, most Americans have been affected, either directly or indirectly, by the opioid epidemic,” the lawsuit states. “This crisis arose not only from the opioid manufacturers’ deliberate marketing strategy, but from distributors’ and pharmacies’ equally deliberate efforts to evade restrictions on opioid distribution and dispensing.”
In 2021, the number of suspected opioid overdose deaths in New Hampshire rose by 31 percent in Manchester and 36 percent in Nashua, according to Chris Stawasz of AMR, a company that provides medical transportation and accounts for where overdoses and opioid-related deaths occur so lawmakers and advocates can gain solid insight into where to allocate much-needed resources.
“New Hampshire has been very purposeful in implementing evidence-based strategies around the opioid epidemic in a really comprehensive way, and not every state has done that,” said Amy Daniels, director of the New Hampshire Center for Excellence in Addressing Alcohol and Drug Misuse at JSI. “What the evidence shows is that it takes a lot of different strategies to get your arms around this problem, and that’s what New Hampshire is doing.”
Taking action against pharmacies, from Formella’s perspective is just another strategy to combat the crisis.