Ohio county attorneys want large payout from pharmacies.
Dan Polster, a federal judge in Cleveland, Ohio, demanded that pharmacy chains CVS, Walgreens and Walmart pay billions in restitution after a jury found they helped fuel the nation’s devastating opioid epidemic. The hearing against three of the largest U.S. pharmacies commenced following the criminal convictions of 65 of Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals’ 239 top pain pill prescribers in 2013. These physicians were forced to turn over their medical licenses, pay fines and/or serve time in prison. Polster, who is tasked with determining the pharmacies’ involvement in contributing to the crisis in two Ohio counties, acknowledged that the position he’s been in for the past few years is a tough one. “I’ve been tasked to do something that no other federal judge in our country has been tasked to do,” he said.
According to court documents released to the public, Mallinckrodt and other opioid manufacturers persuaded doctors to give patients even more addictive painkillers than they were already issuing at higher doses while undermining the risks associated with overprescribing. Several of the physicians involved were arrested for running “pill mill” clinics, fraud and other crimes. The pharmacy chains subsequently filled the prescriptions written.
Among the highest prescribers of addictive pills was Fathalla Mashali, who ran four centers in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Prior to being taken into custody, his employees had complained to the authorities about his “unprofessional, unethical, and unlawful behavior.” Mashali was arrested while attempting to leave the country and in 2018. He was sentenced to eight years in federal prison.
The decision in Cleveland centers around two Ohio counties, Lake and Trumbull, that are part of a bellwether federal case that will determine compensation for thousands of opioid lawsuits filed by municipalities, counties and Indigenous tribes. Attorneys for the counties said they need “at least $1 billion” to manage the addiction crisis, and a lawyer indicated that CVS Health Corp, Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. and Walmart Inc., specifically, should contribute the funding for an $878 million plan to address it. The counties’ legal reps indicated that “about 400 pain pills were dispensed for every resident of Trumbull county” when the epidemic was at its peak.
The pharmacy chains have denied the Ohio counties’ claims and said they would appeal. At the same time, they’ve offered to pay for a one-year program to buy back unused prescription opioid drugs while arguing that Ohio’s public nuisance law only states that they need “to stop the nuisance identified by the jury – an oversupply of prescription drugs – and not to address all of its harmful effects on the communities.”
Another bellwether trial involving distributors centers around the crisis in West Virginia, the state with the highest opioid overdose rate. According to evidence presented during trial, pharmaceutical executives “circulated emails mocking ‘pill-billies’” or those who became addicted to painkillers.” That trial is still awaiting a verdict.
Mallinckrodt, Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson have, so far, agreed to more than $40 billion for their role without admitting to any wrongdoing. Earlier this month, CVS and Walgreens agreed to pay Florida hundreds of millions to settle claims. In 2021, Johnson & Johnson said it would stop manufacturing opioid painkillers.