Plaintiffs are seeking billions of dollars in restitution.
Walmart, Walgreens, CVS, and Rite Aid are among the superstores and chain drugstores named in what will be a major trial regarding corporate complicity in the opioid epidemic.
As reported by the New York Times, the lawsuit filed in federal court last Friday seeks billions of dollars in restitution from corporations that inundated the market with prescription opioids, and consists of almost 2,000 individual cases brought by cities, counties, and Native American tribes around the country where opioid addiction levied heavy death tolls. The lawsuit is expected to go to trial — the biggest civil trial in US history, per the Washington Post — in October.
The case is the latest in a years-long public reckoning over the prescription painkillers that have wreaked havoc in the US, getting millions hooked, killing hundreds of thousands, and leaving vulnerable communities devastated. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, more than 130 people die per day from opioid-related overdoses. In 2017, more than half of the reported 47,600 opioid overdose deaths were attributed to synthetic opioids, like fentanyl. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the prescription opioid mortality rate — from painkillers like OxyContin and Percocet — at 218,000 between 1999 and 2017. In 2016, HHS reported that 11.4 million people were misusing prescription opioids, prompting the US government to declare a public health emergency the following year.
While pharmaceutical companies like Purdue Pharma have faced litigation over the mass production of painkillers, this is the first legal action taken against retailers that distribute those pills. The suit seeks to hold Walmart, Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, and others accountable for not abiding by laws that mandate pharmacies alert the Drug Enforcement Administration of suspicious orders, and for creating a “public nuisance,” which the New York Times characterizes as “a continuing crisis that affects the far reaches of public health, including neonatal intensive care, foster care, emergency services, detox and rehabilitation programs and the criminal justice system.”
The Times cites a particular incident in which one Walgreens employee flagged in a 2011 email a 3,271-bottle order of oxycodone that shipped to a Florida town of 2,831, now turned over as state’s evidence, with no discernible effect. Walgreens shipped another large order to the same town the following month. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Florida providers wrote 83.5 opioid prescriptions for every 100 people that same year.
In a statement provided to Vox, Walgreens spokesperson Phil Caruso said, “Walgreens pharmacists are highly trained professionals committed to dispensing legitimate prescriptions that meet the needs of our patients. Walgreens has not distributed prescription controlled substances since 2014 and before that time only distributed to our chain of pharmacies. Walgreens has been an industry leader in combating this crisis in the communities where our pharmacists live and work.”
Walmart stands accused of not training its employees or enacting policy to monitor suspicious orders before 2011, at a time when prescription opioid overdose deaths were on the rise, surpassing deaths that involved heroin and cocaine combined.
When reached for comment, Walmart spokesperson Randy Hargrove directed Vox to the corporation’s motion for summary judgment filed in court last Friday. The legal document states, “Walmart’s distribution accounts for a vanishingly small part of the relevant market: Plaintiffs’ own expert concluded that Walmart distributed less than 1.3% of the opioids distributed” to two Ohio counties named in the suit. Walmart’s motion adds that the company does not market controlled substances and denies culpability in creating a black market for opioids, as alleged by the suit.
Rite Aid and CVS also submitted court filings, the New York Times reports, detailing that “no evidence” delivered by the case’s plaintiffs linked their opioid distribution to misuse. When reached for comment, Rite Aid’s company spokesperson Chris Savarese told Vox that the company does not comment on pending litigation.
CVS spokesperson Mike DeAngelis told Vox via email that the company is “aggressively defending against” the lawsuit’s allegations, and that CVS never distributed Schedule II controlled substances like oxycodone or fentanyl. CVS did, however, distribute hydrocodone combination prescriptions like Vicodin to their own pharmacies until the DEA rescheduled them in 2014, says DeAngelis. “We maintain stringent policies, procedures and tools to help ensure that our pharmacists properly exercise their professional responsibility to evaluate controlled substance prescriptions before filling them. Keep in mind that doctors have the primary responsibility to make sure the opioid prescriptions they write are for a legitimate purpose.”
CVS, which acquired the health insurance company Aetna for $70 billion last year, reported 2018 revenues of $194.6 billion. Rite Aid’s most recent full-year revenues hit $21.6 billion, and Walgreens Boots Alliance — which calls itself “the first global pharmacy-led, health and wellbeing enterprise” — reported revenues of $131.5 billion for 2018.
Between 2006 and 2012, 76 billion opioid pain pills flooded the market, as reported by the Washington Post; that same six years saw 100,000 prescription opioid deaths. Six companies distributed three-quarters of those pills, including Walgreens, CVS, and Walmart.