The state says pharmacies should “serve as a dam,” stopping the flood of suspicious opioids into the communities.
Walgreens, Walmart Inc., and Kroger Co. started squaring off against the state of New Mexico earlier this month in a new trial alleging the pharmacies had a role in fueling the state’s opioid epidemic. New Mexico’s attorney general (AG) Hector Balderas, claimed, “Pharmacists were meant to serve as a ‘dam’ against an influx of fraudulent opioid prescriptions by refusing to fill such prescriptions when red flags” indicated potential abuse.”
He told Judge Francis Matthew, presiding over the trial without a jury in the 1st Judicial Circuit of New Mexico in Santa Fe, that he believes the defendants “had a legal duty to prevent the flood and protect New Mexicans.”
State attorney Dan Alberstone said that the three firms sold over 550 million opioid pills in New Mexico in the three-year span between 2006 and 2019, which equates to more than 263 pills for each resident.
Attorney John Majors, who represented Walmart and the other two defendant firms in their opening statements, said that pharmacists should use “professional judgment rather than the mechanical application of red lights.”
He claimed that it would be impossible to prove that pharmacists “knowingly” filled any suspicious prescription orders. However, the pharmacy chains have already had their fair share of lawsuits filed in other states alleging they did. Since the height of the opioid litigation in 2018, they’ve faced off against many defendants accusing the chains of filling far-too-large orders without running them by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) per protocol.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 500,000 Americans have lost their lives to opioid overdoses in the previous two decades. Over 3,300 lawsuits have also been filed against various defendants including physicians, drug makers, distributors, a consulting firm and other parties. Big pharmaceutical companies and wholesalers have agreed to pay billions to the claims against them, but pharmacies continue to hold out.
In 2017, the State of New Mexico filed a lawsuit against many pharmacies, charging them with being a “public nuisance due” to their inability to prevent the diversion of opioids through criminal channels. The state is trying to get the pharmacies to foot the bill for drug abuse prevention initiatives.
A jury in one case brought by two Ohio counties last year resulted in a $650 million judgment against Walgreens, Walmart, and CVS Health Corp last month. CVS Health and Walgreens reached mid-trial settlements with Florida for $683 million and $484 million, respectively.
The chain of pharmacies in New Mexico serves as the last link in the opioid supply chain before the drugs reach consumers and performs a key gatekeeping role between harmful opioids and the public. The lawsuit states that that pharmacies did not do their due diligence as gatekeepers and didn’t protect the public as they should have. The lawsuit claims the corporations colluded to increase profits. It states that the financial cost of responding to this disaster has been tremendous” and that it’s time to have the chains pay for their part in it.