Ohio’s $650 Million Opioid Ruling Against Big Pharma Could Scare Pharmacists
CVS, Walgreens and Walmart must pay two Ohio counties $650 million for their role in the opioid epidemic, a judge ruled on Wednesday. It would “deal with a small piece of a terrible, enduring and growing national tragedy,” U.S. District Judge Aaron Polster said. But some say the decision has the potential to cause further damage by scaring pharmacists.
The ruling showed that Polster believed the oversupply of prescription opioids from the three companies contributed to the outbreak in Lake and Trumbull counties in Ohio. It ruled that pharmacies should be responsible for one-third of the total reduction costs, with drugmakers, distributors and dispensers of prescription opioids also liable.
There are more than 3,000 cases that are part of multidistrict litigation over the opioid epidemic. Until now, most drug manufacturers and distributors have reaches colonies with the counties that sued them. Wednesday’s ruling represents the first judge’s decision against large, well-recognized retail pharmacies.
Some say pharmacies aren’t the ones to blame, though. Zack Grayco-founder and CEO of Opheliaa direct-to-patient digital health provider that combines telemedicine with life-saving medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to treat opioid use disorder (OUD) called the decision “well-intentioned” but says that it sends the wrong message.
“While well-intentioned, this move has the potential to cause further harm by deterring pharmacies from dispensing lifesaving drug buprenorphine for addiction treatment,” Gray said. “Buprenorphine is a controlled drug used to treat opioid use disorder, and pharmacies nationwide are already reluctant to distribute it lest it trigger an investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). This decision sends pharmacists a dangerous message that you are expected to overrule the doctors’ decision – and failure to do so can be costly.
Gray says the DEA should issue clearer guidelines to pharmacists regarding prescriptions to treat opioid addiction. The agency has publicly committed to allowing telemedicine for buprenorphine beyond the pandemic but he needs to make it clear that remote prescribing of this drug is consistent with his program, Gray said. This is particularly important because the prescribing of buprenorphine is already heavily regulated, with prescribers requiring a special DEA license to dispense the drug. There are also rigid limits on the number of patients each prescriber can provide this treatment to.
As pharmacists grapple with the impact of this decision, the spotlight on retail pharmacies isn’t going away anytime soon.
Walgreens is on the hook in California, where a Northern District judge earlier this month determined that the pharmacy “has contributed significantly to the opioid epidemic.” A second phase of the lawsuit will help determine Walgreens’ liability in tackling the problem it helped create.
CVS Health, Walgreens and Walmart did not immediately respond to request for comment.