Pharmacies face first lawsuit for role in opioid crisis


CLEVELAND – So many prescription pain relievers were distributed in Lake County, Ohio, between 2012 and 2016, that the amount was equivalent to 265 tablets for each resident. Just south, the flood of prescription opioids over the same period amounted to 400 pills for every inhabitant of Trumbull County.

Lawyers say efforts to tackle the overdose epidemic that followed cost each of the struggling counties at least $ 1 billion. Now those counties want the big national drugstore chains that have been involved in much of that distribution to pay.

In a benchmark federal trial that begins Monday in Cleveland, Lake and Trumbull counties, will attempt to convince a jury that retail pharmacy companies have played an outsized role in creating a public nuisance in the way they dispense pain relievers in their communities.

It will be the first time that pharmaceutical companies, namely CVS, Walgreens, Giant Eagle and Walmart, will be on trial in defense of the country’s ongoing legal settlement over the opioid crisis. The lawsuit, which is expected to last around six weeks, could set the tone for similar lawsuits against retail drugstore chains by government entities across the United States

The lawsuit will focus on the harm to counties and the response of drugstore chains, which have argued in court records that their pharmacists were only filling prescriptions written by doctors for legitimate medical purposes. The trial also has a human dimension, watched closely by those whose family members are among the estimated 500,000 Americans whose deaths are attributed to opioid abuse over the past two decades.

Grover, who lives in the small community of Trumbull County, Mesopotamia Township, said she believed her daughter, Rachael Realini, started using prescription pain relievers around 2013 but did not have missed any sign of his addiction. In 2016, she told her mother she needed help. When pain relievers became scarce, she turned to heroin to fuel her habit.

“She looked terrible,” Grover said of her daughter, a registered nurse and mother of two young children. “We kissed and I told her we were going to be fine.”

Rehabilitation attempts in Ohio and Florida failed. Realini was found dead at her home in April 2017 from a fentanyl overdose, according to an autopsy. No other medication was found in his body.

County attorney Frank Gallucci said this was similar to the pattern seen in their communities: heroin and synthetic fentanyl have largely replaced prescription pain relievers, which have been more difficult to obtain as the industry has been forced to come back to the distribution.

Another large drugstore chain, Rite-Aid, has established itself in Lake and Trumbull counties, located outside of Cleveland. Trumbull’s settlement was $ 1.5 million; the amount for Lake County was not disclosed.

The trial that opens Monday before U.S. District Judge Dan Polster is part of a larger constellation of federal opioid lawsuits – about 3,000 in total – that have been consolidated under the judge’s oversight.

Jim Misocky, lawyer and special projects coordinator in Trumbull County, along with Lake County administrator Jason Boyd, said the current opioid crisis is a financial burden. They cited increased costs for their courts, prisons, foster families, law enforcement and drug treatment.

The financial burden is particularly heavy in Trumbull County, where thousands of jobs have been lost in recent years in steel, automotive manufacturing and automotive supply companies.

“It was a big hit on the budget,” said Misocky. “We don’t have a lot of wealth in this community.

Trumbull County had to hire a part-time pathologist at the county coroner’s office, Misocky said. When the county mortuary fills up, the bodies are sent to Cleveland or Lake County for autopsies.

Boyd, of Lake County, said drug treatment facilities were “way beyond capacity.”

“This is a problem that we hear about all the time,” he said. “Where are we going to treat these people? “”

Lawyers for both counties say 80 million prescription pain relievers were dispensed in Trumbull between 2012 and 2016, according to data released earlier by the court. In Lake County, it was 61 million tablets. In trial briefs, drug companies claim they followed guidelines set by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the state of Ohio in how their stores dispense pain relievers.

Lawyers for Rhode Island-based CVS said the allegations against the company “are completely unfounded.”

“Evidence presented at trial will show that CVS not only met legal requirements for the distribution of prescription opioid drugs in Lake and Trumbull counties, but exceeded them,” the company’s lawyers wrote.

Lawyers for Illinois-based Walgreens said the two counties were using “confusing and conflicting legal theories against other defendants before landing on the idea of ​​suing the retail drugstore chains.”

The lawsuit will be the fourth in the United States this year to test claims filed by governments against various players in the pharmaceutical industry over the record of prescription pain relievers. Verdicts or judgments have not yet been rendered in the others.

With trials ongoing and others pending, many of the most prominent defendants have already reached settlements. Sometimes they involve a small number of governments or a single respondent like Rite Aid.

The nation’s three largest drug distribution companies, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson, along with drugmaker Johnson & Johnson, reached a nationwide settlement of $ 26 billion earlier this year. A federal bankruptcy judge recently approved a settlement for Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, potentially worth $ 10 billion. Earlier this year, global consulting firm McKinsey & Company agreed to pay nearly $ 600 million for its role of advising drugmakers on how to increase sales of prescription opioid pain relievers.

And in Ohio, lawsuits by two major counties, Cuyahoga and Summit, against drug distribution companies were settled for $ 260 million before the trial began in November 2019.

Grover believes the drug giants bear a great responsibility for his daughter’s addiction and is happy that they are being tried.

“Pharmaceutical companies are the biggest drug dealers there are,” Grover said. “They are white collar drug dealers, and they must be held accountable.”

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Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill contributed to this article from Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

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