Some of the top pharmacy chains are at the center of an opioid trial this month in Cleveland.
Ohio counties Lake and Trumbull have alleged that the lack of oversight at Walgreens, CVS, Walmart, and Giant Eagle led to excessive opioid orders that helped fuel the crisis in their communities. Now a few of the largest chains are at the center of a pharmacy trial underway in Cleveland, Ohio.
Since the filing, the pharmacies have insisted they were simply a go-between serving physicians and patients and have argued they should be relieved of blame because they were fulfilling orders made by medical personnel. They’ve said that other parties, including physicians and addicts, are to blame and have argued the plaintiffs brought “common law absolute public nuisance claims, alleging violations of anti-diversion laws gave rise to a public nuisance” when Ohio law only allows for statutory public nuisance claims.
“While pharmacists are highly trained and licensed professionals, they do not write prescriptions,” attorneys for the pharmacies initially wrote in their attempt to dismiss the case. They noted further, “A prescription for a controlled substance is an order for a medication that may be issued only by a physician or other authorized healthcare practitioner.”
CVS submitted a statement ahead of the pharmacy trial specifically saying, “Opioid prescriptions are written by doctors, not pharmacists. Our pharmacies fill legitimate prescriptions written by licensed doctors.” Thus, the chain argued that it did not engage in any illegal activities.
Should a jury find the companies liable, U.S. District Judge Dan Polster will determine how much they will pay out to the communities. Polster, overseeing many of the opioid lawsuits, urged at the start of trial, “Use this trial as an opportunity to engage in the kind of meaningful discussions that have not happened over the last couple of years, all right?” He has long pushed for both sides in the multi-district litigation to reach settlements rather than dragging out their cases.
Mark Lanier, the counties’ attorney, said, “The national chain pharmacies in our case refused to give their pharmacists the necessary tools and opportunities to follow the law and stop the diversion and improper sale of opiates.” Thus, he insisted, they are not responsible for issuing the prescriptions but they were responsible for dismissing red flags, allowing pharmacists to fill excessively large orders. He added, “They just dispensed like a vending machine.”
The current trial follows one involving the three largest U.S. opioid distributors – McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc and AmerisourceBergen Corp. – and Johnson & Johnson. In July, they reached a proposed settlement of $26 billion. Bankruptcy court judge Robert Drain approved a settlement by OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma and members of the Sackler family in August. Rite Aid settled pre-trial, agreeing to pay Trumbull $1.5 million. Lake County has not disclosed its settlement.
More than 3,000 cases have been brought by state and local governments, as well as tribal communities, seeking to hold the companies responsible for the sweeping opioid epidemic in the U.S. which has caused an estimated 500,000 overdose deaths from 1999 to 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).