Jury holds pharmacies responsible for role in opioid crisis

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A federal jury says CVS, Walgreens and Walmart pharmacies didn’t do enough to stop the flow of opioid pills in two Ohio counties

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CLEVELAND — CVS, Walgreens and Walmart pharmacies distributed large quantities of pain pills in two Ohio counties, a federal jury said Tuesday in a ruling that could set the tone for U.S. city and county governments that allow pharmacies to play their roles. want to be held accountable for. The opioid crisis.

Lake and Trumbull counties blamed three chain pharmacies for not stopping the flood of bullets, causing hundreds more deaths and costing the two counties nearly $1 billion each, said their attorney, who told the court in court the pharmacies’ distribution. Compared to a gumball machine.

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How much the pharmacies will have to pay in damages will be decided by a federal judge in the spring.

It is the first time pharmacy companies have completed a trial to defend themselves in the drug crisis that has killed half a million Americans over the past two decades.

The counties convinced the jury that pharmacies played a big part in causing a public nuisance in the way they dispense pain medication in their communities.

“The law requires that pharmacies be diligent in handling drugs. This matter should be a wake-up call that failure will not be acknowledged,” said Mark Lanier, an attorney for the counties.

“The jury rang a bell that should be heard through all pharmacies in America,” Lanier said.

Lawyers for the pharmacy chain said they had policies in place to stop the flow of pills when their pharmacists had concerns and would notify authorities about doctors’ suspicious orders. He also said that it was the doctors who controlled how many pills were prescribed for legitimate medical needs.

CVSHealth, Walgreen Co. and Walmart Inc. Said they would appeal.

Walmart said in a statement that attorneys for the counties “ignored the real causes of the opioid crisis while suing looking for deep pockets — such as pill mill doctors, illegal drugs, and sleeping on regulatory switches — and they wronged.” claimed the way that pharmacists should second-guess doctors in a way that the law was never intended to and many federal and state health regulators say interferes with the doctor-patient relationship.”

Walgreens spokesman Fraser Engermann described the case as “an ongoing effort to address the opioid crisis with the unprecedented expansion of public nuisance legislation.”

“The company never manufactured or marketed opioids, nor did we distribute them to the ‘pill mills’ and Internet pharmacies that fueled this crisis,” Engerman said in a statement.

A statement from CVS spokesman Mike DeAngelis said: “As the plaintiffs’ own experts testify, a number of factors have contributed to the issue of opioid abuse, and our health care system needs to address this problem.” The participation of all stakeholders and all members of our community will be required.”

Two chains — Rite Aid and Giant Eagle — had already settled lawsuits with two Ohio counties.

Lanier said during the trial that the pharmacies were trying to blame everyone but themselves.

The opioid crisis has overwhelmed the courts, social service agencies and law enforcement in Ohio’s blue-collar corner east of Cleveland, leaving behind dysfunctional families and children born to addicted mothers, Lanier told jurors. .

Between 2012 and 2016 nearly 80 million prescription painkillers were distributed in Trumbull County alone – the equivalent of 400 for each resident. In Lake County, approximately 61 million pills were distributed during that period.

There was an increase in physicians prescribing painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone as medical groups began to recognize that patients have a right to pain treatment, Kaspar Stoffelmeier, an attorney for Walgreens, said at the trial’s opening.

The problem, he said, was that “pharmaceutical manufacturers tricked doctors into prescribing too many pills.”

Counties said pharmacies should be the last line of defense to prevent pills from getting into the wrong hands.

Lanier said he did not hire enough pharmacists and technicians or train them to prevent this from happening and failed to implement systems that could flag suspicious orders.

The committee of lawyers for local governments prosecuting the drug industry in federal courts called Tuesday’s decision “a landmark victory” and an “overdue calculation.”

“For decades, pharmacy chains have observed that their door-to-door pills cause harm and fail to take action required by law,” the committee said in a statement. “Instead, these companies responded by opening up more locations, filling communities with pills, and facilitating the flow of opioids into an illegal, secondary market.”

The trial before US District Judge Dan Polster in Cleveland was part of a broader group of nearly 3,000 federal opioid lawsuits consolidated under the supervision of a judge. Other cases are proceeding in state courts.

Kevin Roy, chief public policy officer for addiction solutions advocacy organization Shatterproof, said the decision could prompt pharmacies to follow the path of major distribution companies and some drug makers who are facing nationwide settlements of billions of opioid cases. have reached. So far no pharmacy has reached the nationwide settlement.

“It’s a sign that the public, at least in select places, thinks exposure has happened and needs to be fixed,” Roy said.

Government claims against drug manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies depend on state and local public nuisance laws.

Roy said the courts are not consistent on whether these laws apply in such cases. “There have been a number of different decisions recently that should give us reason to be cautious about what this really means in the grand scheme,” he said.

Two recent decisions went against the principle. More cases are moving towards adjudication.

Trials are underway against drugmakers in New York and distribution companies in Washington state. The claims lawsuit against the distribution companies in West Virginia ended, but the judge did not deliver a verdict.

Earlier in November, a California judge ruled in favor of top drugmakers in a lawsuit with three counties and the city of Oakland. The judge said the governments have not proved that drug companies used deceptive marketing to increase unnecessary opioid prescriptions and create public nuisance.

Also this month, Oklahoma’s Supreme Court overturned a $465 million 2019 ruling against drugmaker Johnson & Johnson in a lawsuit brought by the state.

Other lawsuits have resulted in larger settlements or proposed settlements before trials are completed.

The jury’s decision in Cleveland had little effect on CVS, Walgreens and Walmart stocks, which closed higher on Wall Street on Tuesday.

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Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, contributed to this report.

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