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Florida lawsuit targets CVS, Walgreens as 'last line of defense' in opioid crisis

Florida, one of many states going after participants in the opioid supply chain in court, has added Walgreens and CVS to a lawsuit previously filed against manufacturers Purdue Pharma, Allergan, Endo, Janssen, Mallinckrodt and others.

The lawsuit claims that Walgreens and CVS knew or should have known that some of the opioids they ordered and supplied to Florida communities would eventually be diverted to the black market because the quantities far exceeded medical justification.

Florida’s attorney general Pam Bondi argues that both pharmacies failed to use “highly detailed” prescription, distribution and sales tracking data from paid data-mining firms to flag high-quantity orders as suspicious.

By disregarding the suspicious data the defendants “violated their duty by selling and shipping billions of opioids into Florida without sounding the alarm, stopping the shipments, or taking reasonable steps to prevent diversion,” the complaint alleges.

On some occasions, opioid orders at Walgreens are said to have jumped as much as 600% over a 2-year period. The lawsuit references a Walgreens distribution center that sold 2.2 million tablets to a single Walgreens pharmacy in Hudson, Florida — enough to cover a six-month supply for each of the town’s residents.

Between 2006 and 2014, CVS allegedly sold 700 million opioid dosages.

The state alleges the two drugstore chains violated state law by failing to “stop suspicious orders of opioids.”

“Instead of using that information and data to prevent shipments of suspicious quantities or filling of suspicious prescriptions, Walgreens and CVS joined the race to sell as many opioids as possible, including by failing to institute safeguards and by marketing opioids to their vast networks of retail pharmacy stores and in-store pharmacists,” the lawsuit claims.

Also targeted are the chains’ pharmacists, described as “a last line of defense” between dangerous drugs and the public.

The lawsuit alleges pharmacists have a legal duty to investigate prescriptions that appear “unreasonable,” for example those that are written for large quantities, in frequencies or in other manners that would generally require additional due diligence.

In a statement to Yahoo Finance CVS said, “We believe the state of FL’s addition of CVS Pharmacy to this lawsuit is without merit.” The company said it is committed to complying with all federal and state laws governing the dispensing of controlled substance prescriptions.

“CVS has taken numerous actions to strengthen our existing safeguards to help address the nation’s opioid epidemic. This includes millions of hours training our pharmacy teams about responsibilities and best practices regarding controlled substances,” the company stated.

Walgreens declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Misleading marketing

Florida’s lawsuit also alleges defendants worked together and engaged in misleading marketing tactics that increased demand, including some employing representatives to downplay opioid addiction risks in education sessions with doctors, physician assistants and nurse practitioners.

In 2010, a Florida Health report found that the state was responsible for 90 of the top 100 physicians purchasing oxycodone. A 2017 report on the state’s continued efforts to control prescriptions says physicians and dispensers made more than 35.8 million requests to view specific patients’ controlled substance dispensing histories out of 232 million dispensing records.

States, cities and towns across the country, as well as Native American Tribe councils, have filed similar actions against opioid manufacturers alleging violation of consumer protection and other laws. The Justice Department has backed state actions and requested to join settlement talks against manufacturers and distributors.

Opioid deaths in 2017 increased 10% over the previous year. In all, 72,000 overdose deaths were recorded in the U.S. last year.

“We will continue to pursue those companies that played a role in creating the opioid crisis,”  Bondi said in a statement.

Alexis Keenan is a New York-based reporter for Yahoo Finance. She previously produced live news for CNN and MSNBC and is a former litigation attorney. Follow her on Twitter at @alexiskweed

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