Major Pharmacies Face First Federal Trial in Opioid Epidemic

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Photo courtesy US Department of Agriculture via Flickr

On Monday, in a federal courtroom in Ohio, major pharmacy companies — in this case, CVS, Walgreens, Giant Eagle, and Walmart — will be facing trial for the first time for their part in the raging opioid epidemic, according to NPR, US News, and the Washington Post. 

According to the Associated Press, an incredible amount of prescription painkillers were dispensed to residents in Lake County, Ohio, between 2012 and 2016 — so many that it amounted to 61 million pills dispensed in Lake County, amounting to 265 pills for every resident. 

Just south of Lake County in Trumbull County, Ohio, the flood of pills was even more staggering at 80 million prescription painkillers dispensed, amounting to 400 pills for every resident, according to US News. 

This, advocates and attorneys say, has exacerbated the opioid epidemic, as hundreds of those pills have reached the black market, “fueling hundreds of overdose deaths amid one of the worst public health crises in the nation’s history,” according to the Washington Post.

In Trumbull County alone, authorities have had to hire a part-time pathologist in the coroner’s office because the county morgue fills up with bodies too quickly, noting that many people are dying of overdoses, US News details. 

Mark Lanier, with the Lanier Law Firm, one of the lead attorneys suing the pharmacy chains, argues the companies were reckless with the way they dispensed pain pills, ignoring red flags of a growingly addicted community, all while earning billions of dollars dispensing opioids while “failing to implement adequate safety and monitoring systems for high-risk medications.”

The pharmacies have publicly said they believe they did nothing wrong, and that the way they dispensed highly addictive pain pills was lawful considering they were just “carrying out authorized prescriptions.” But, the jury trial now getting underway could expose them to “billions of dollars in liability and huge risk to their reputations,” NPR details.

“It’s important for these two communities [in Lake County and Trumbull County] to have an opportunity to tell their story, to let the jury and the public know the role that the pharmacies have as it relates to this epidemic,” said Frank L. Gallucci, a lead attorney for the Ohio counties. “Their involvement is necessary for the abatement of it, not just in these two communities but across the country as a whole.”

If Found Liable, Billions Will be Owed

Even though the trial only involved Lake and Trumbull counties in Ohio, this case is already being viewed as a “bellweather” test, paving the way for legal precedent — considering these companies face more than 3,300 similar lawsuits from local and state governments nationwide, according to NPR. 

If the pharmacy giants are found liable, they could be required to pay billions of dollars to help governments face the nearly insurmountable costs that the opioid epidemic has incurred, from addiction treatment, emergency room care, to justice system fees, and even to funeral costs. 

“Because the scope of the economic harm is so significant, the price that could be paid in any verdict could be quite significant,” Adam Zimmerman, a professor at Loyola Law School and an expert on opioid litigation, told NPR. 

Another major pharmacy chain, Rite-Aid, recently settled with Lake and Trumbull counties, which are located outside Cleveland, according to US News. The Trumbull settlement was $1.5 million, but the Lake County amount has not been publicly disclosed.

While the pharmacies are garnering media attention, advocates for Walgreens and CVS Health say they shouldn’t be compared to opioid manufacturers like Perdue Pharma because they are not the drug-makers, prescribers, or government regulators. 

See Also: Purdue Pharma Reaches Final Stage of Opioid Settlement Through Bankruptcy

“We never manufactured or marketed opioids, and never sold opioids to the pain clinics, internet pharmacies or the ‘pill mills’ that fueled the opioid crisis,” Walgreens said in a statement sent to NPR.

“CVS Health is very different from drug manufacturers and wholesalers and we will vigorously defend the company in these matters,” said CVS Health in a detailed statement. “[O]pioid prescriptions are written by doctors, not pharmacists. Our pharmacies fill legitimate prescriptions written by licensed doctors.”

Earlier this year, an investigation by NPR found some Walmart pharmacists tried to raise alarms about the company’s opioid practices — but felt they were ignored or silenced, and nothing changed.

America’s Opioid Epidemic

“People need to realize that drug addiction is a family disease, and everyone in the family is affected by it,” said Sharon Grover, a Trumbull County resident whose daughter died after becoming addicted to prescription pain pills, and then heroin. “I’m never going to be the same,” she told US News.

Grover, believes her daughter, Rachael Realini, started using prescription painkillers around 2013, but missed any signs of her addiction. By 2016, she told her mother she needed help. When pain pills became scarce, she turned to heroin to feed her habit.

“She looked terrible,” Grover said of her daughter, a registered nurse and mother of two small children. “We hugged, and I told her we would get through this.”

After multiple failed attempts to attend rehab in Ohio and Florida, Realini overdosed in 2017.

Unfortunately, there are thousands of families in America going through what the Grover family has endured. 

Ohio overdose deaths in 2021 are set to eclipse the toll tallied when the case was filed about three years ago, lead attorney Gallucci told the Washington Post. 

Nationwide, overdose deaths involving opioids reached 69,710 in 2020, a share of the more than 500,000 opioid overdose deaths since 1999.

Provisional drug overdose death data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that from February 2020 to February 2021, there have been over 95,000 deaths attributed to overdose deaths. 

Additional Reading: Opioid Deaths Spur Canadian Push to Decriminalize All Drugs

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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