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Walmart, CVS and Walgreens Must Pay $650M for Filling Prescriptions to Pill Mills in Opioid Crisis

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A landmark ruling orders pharmacy chains Walmart, CVS and Walgreens to pay a combined $650 million for their role in fueling the opioid crisis, as other cases have focused on opioid makers and wholesalers that distribute the addictive painkillers. A federal judge in Ohio found the pharmacy chains accountable for filling prescriptions even after suspecting doctors were operating pill mills. “It’s high time that all the players in this terrible chain of manufacture, prescribing, dispensing, are held responsible for their actions,” says Barry Meier, author of “Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter covered the opioid crisis for decades at The New York Times. He also discusses similar rulings against Walgreens and others in San Francisco and Florida.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with a landmark ruling by a federal judge in Ohio that orders U.S. pharmacy chains Walmart, CVS and Walgreens to pay a combined $650 million in damages related to the opioid epidemic. This is the first federal ruling against the pharmacy chains for their roles in the opioid crisis. Other cases have focused on opioid makers and wholesalers that distribute the addictive painkillers. The ruling follows a federal jury’s verdict in November that found the pharmacy chains’ sale of these drugs caused severe harm to communities and violated Ohio’s public nuisance laws. In the lawsuit, Lake County and Trumbull County allege the pharmacies, quote, “abused their position of special trust and responsibility,” unquote, as dispensers of the drugs and, quote, “fostered a black market for prescription opioids.”

In his ruling Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster ordered the damages to be paid out over the next 15 years and said they’re meant to “address a small piece of a terrible and tenacious and escalating national tragedy. Even if the Court could wave a magic wand and forever remove any existing or future oversupply of legal prescription opioids, and prevent all future diversion of legal prescription opioids into the illicit market, this conjuring would do nothing to reduce the nuisance that would continue to exist in Lake and Trumbull Counties — that is, the widespread prevalence of opioid use disorder and opioid addiction,” he wrote.

CVS and Walmart said they disagreed with the ruling, but a Walgreens spokesperson, Fraser Engerman, told The New York Times, quote, “We never manufactured or marketed opioids nor did we distribute them to the 'pill mills' and internet pharmacies that fueled this crisis,” they said.

For more, we’re joined by Barry Meier, long reported on this issue, is the author of Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic. Netflix is adapting his book into a dramatic series. Barry Meier was the first journalist to shine a national spotlight on the abuse of OxyContin and won the Pulitzer Prize and two Polk Awards for his past New York Times reporting on the intersection of business, medicine and public health.

Barry, welcome back to Democracy Now! First respond to this precedent-setting settlement against the drugstore chains.

BARRY MEIER: Well, Amy, thank you very much for having me on once again. Good morning.

I think it’s extraordinary. And I think it’s high time that all the players in this terrible chain of manufacture, prescribing, dispensing, are held responsible for their actions. I mean, I hear what these pharmacy chains are saying, that they bear no responsibility, but they were happy to rake in all of the cash when their outlets were kind of recklessly dispensing these drugs — or at least that’s what the decision of the jury was. And so now it’s time to pay the piper and to use some of this money to repair some of the damage.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the response of these companies, Walmart releasing a statement, for example, reading in part, “Instead of addressing the real causes of the opioid crisis, like pill mill doctors, illegal drugs and regulators asleep at the switch, plaintiffs’ lawyers wrongly claimed that pharmacists must second-guess doctors in a way the law never intended and many federal and state health regulators say interferes with the doctor-patient relationship,” Barry.

BARRY MEIER: Well, from the beginning, this has all been a huge finger-pointing exercise. So, you know, the manufacturers have said, “We just make these drugs. Doctors prescribe them.” The doctors will say, “Well, we based our actions predicated on what the drug manufacturers told us. And besides, there was another person up the food chain — the pharmacies — who were supposed to catch these bad actors.” The pharmacists will look back at the doctors and say, “Hey, wait a minute, those are the guys who are responsible, or the drug manufacturers are responsible, because we don’t write prescriptions. We just dispense prescriptions.” And as this one spokesman noted, “Well, maybe we would have people coming down on us if we didn’t dispense these prescriptions.”

But I can tell you from my own experience, when I traveled a lot reporting for the book and, as well, for articles for The New York Times, there were pharmacists who knew that doctors were operating pill mills, who saw the cars lined up outside these facilities where people would go in and get scripts for OxyContin by paying a doctor $40 or $50. And when these people came to their pharmacies, they turned them away. They refused to fill their prescriptions because they felt they were illicit prescriptions. And that is the dilemma that CVS, Walgreens and the other pharmacies now face. And that is, did they exercise due diligence in determining whether this was a prescription that should be filled or should not be filled?

AMY GOODMAN: The chains refused to settle, Barry? Explain how the case went, the jury case in November, and why it took this long to get a sentencing — a result, not a sentencing.

BARRY MEIER: Well, they did settle in some cases, Amy. That’s my understanding. There were some localities where the chains have settled these cases. But I believe the financial demands and the stakes with these specific Ohio counties were high enough for the pharmacies to roll the dice.

Now, bear in mind, there have been drug manufacturers who also have been sued under this public nuisance law, which is basically a law that says, you know, you, as a manufacturer, a drugstore, whomever, you’ve acted in a negligent way, and as a result of that, we, as a tax-paying county, city, state, what have you, some sort of governmental organization, have had to pay out money. Right? The easiest model to think about it through is the lens of the litigation that was brought against the cigarette manufacturers, right? They sold products without disclosing their dangers. States had to pay all kinds of health-related costs, and they sued the manufacturers to reclaim the tax funds that were paid out.

This is a much more complex situation because there are a number of players in it. And in a number of cases where there were jury findings under state public nuisance laws against manufacturers, those were subsequently thrown out, because judges, on appeal, decided, “Well, wait a minute, this doesn’t really meet the test of our public nuisance laws.” So it remains to be seen whether the particular wording of the laws in Ohio will stand on appeal.

AMY GOODMAN: How does the money get distributed?

BARRY MEIER: Well, that’s a great question. It is probably, hopefully, going to go into drug treatment, drug abatement. I mean, you know, the dilemma — and the companies make this argument. Both the manufacturers and the pharmacies make an argument, and it’s partly true, which is, you know, at this juncture, the majority of overdose deaths don’t involve legally produced opioids. They involved opioids that were produced in laboratories, these very toxic, very destructive, counterfeit forms of fentanyl, which now account for the greatest growth in opioid deaths.

So, the question becomes, you know, if we are going to reduce these deaths and reduce addiction, it’s basically a battle that’s got to be fought on a lot of fronts. There’s got to be reduced prescribing of these drugs, more intelligent dispensing of these drugs, but also either stepped-up law enforcement interdiction of illegal opioids on the street or — you know, ultimately, what’s the goal here? Is the goal to save lives? And if the goal is to save lives, we may have to think about scenarios where addicts can get drugs in legal settings so they don’t go out and kill themselves getting them in illegal settings.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about these other cases in other states? I mean, a federal judge ruled that Walgreens can be held responsible for contributing to San Francisco’s opioid crisis, for overdispensing highly addictive drugs for years without proper oversight and failing to identify and report suspicious orders as required by law. And you have, in May, Walgreens reaching a $683 million settlement with the state of Florida in a lawsuit accusing the company of improperly dispensing millions of painkillers that contributed to the opioid crisis. Is this going to go state by state?

BARRY MEIER: Yes, indeed, it will. And, you know, it’s going to be basically modeled on not only state by state, but locality by locality. I mean, in many cases, these county-level or even state-level actions have been consolidated together in courts, but there are also individual actions that have been brought by states, that have been brought by counties, against, in this case, let’s say, the pharmacies. And so, yeah, it’s going to be a fire that they’re fighting on any number of fronts that’s going to pop up.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s all kind of going to be determined not so much by their actions — you know, it’s like sort of hard for them to defend their actions when there are all these photographs that exist of people lined up outside pharmacies to fill prescriptions, or there are these very damaging internal emails within the pharmacies that have come out where executives or sales reps are licking their chops over the thousands or tens of thousands of pain pills that are being prescribed in an area. It’s very much going to be a function of the particular wording of these local laws and the determination by these companies about whether the wording of the kind of public nuisance statute in an area, they can get through that, or it’s too risky and they’re going to settle before the case goes to court.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, Barry, a fictional adaptation of your book Pain Killer is going to be adapted by Netflix, coming out next year, starring Uzo Aduba and Matthew Broderick. You’re a consultant. What do you hope will be gained by this?

BARRY MEIER: You know, I think this is a story that, you know, is, as I tell people, one I’m very passionate about, because I wrote about it first 20 years ago. The most important — you know, one of the most important things that I think hopefully the story kind of brings to light is, you know, how our fate as a society or how our course as a society can be affected by a few people, and how those few people may in fact, somewhere in their heads, think that they’re doing good, but their actions and the inactions of others, particularly others within our own government, can have this extraordinary ripple effect.

I mean, when you think about the development of OxyContin, you know, this was originally brought out as something that was supposed to be a miracle drug, something that was supposed to deal with severe pain and treat this condition that doctors were struggling to deal with. And what it helped trigger was the biggest public health crisis of the 21st century, one that we’re talking about today, because the ripple effects of it just keep going on and on and on. And I think it’s important for us to understand the roots of what we’re seeing today and how it unfolded. And it’s my great hope that the show, which really does have terrific actors, writers, a wonderful director involved with it, kind of bring that all to life.

AMY GOODMAN: Barry Meier, we want to thank you for being with us, award-winning journalist, author of Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic, was a New York Times reporter —

BARRY MEIER: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: — for years, won the Pulitzer. Thank you so much.

Next up, we go to Florida. Yes, Tuesday is a primary there, and we’re going to look at the 20 arrests that took place last week, overwhelmingly of people who were formerly incarcerated. Why? Because they mistakenly thought they were eligible to vote? Stay with us.

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