Why pharmacies are the fall guys in opioid crisis

By: - August 13, 2022

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That the United States is enduring a massive crisis of drug addiction can’t be denied. Whether the drugs are illegal or legal, the result is the same – ruined lives and deaths.

The figures are astounding. The misuse of opioids – legal and illegal, from the misuse of prescription painkillers to heroin – is regarded as an epidemic and has been linked to more than 500,000 deaths in this country over the last 20 years.

Given the current situation, those deaths will continue to occur. The victims are middle- and upper-class people who do their drug use in private, and others are the ones who are visible – the poor and the homeless who live their lives on the streets of our cities, many of them stoned on a variety of illegal substances.

The core issue is: Where do the drugs come from and how can that supply be stopped? You might think first of the drugs that are brought across our southern border by the drug cartels, and that is surely a major source of them. But government on all levels have found another place they say is a source – legitimate drug stores. Yes, that’s right – your friendly neighborhood pharmacy.

They fill prescriptions and are, in that sense, a source of the drugs. The question has been raised about their “responsibility” for the crisis. It goes without saying that cities dealing with the problem are looking for a responsible source (deep-pocket fall guy?), and they are doing it by suing pharmacies, drug manufacturers and distributors.

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According to available figures, nationally more than 3,000 lawsuits have been filed in state and federal courts. According to an AP report, those suits are by state and local governments, Native American tribes, unions, hospitals and other entities.

San Francisco is one of the cities currently involved in such lawsuits because of its massive drug problems. In this case, the target is Walgreens pharmacies. The mayor, London Breed, declared a “state of emergency” in the city last year because of the out-of-control drug use on the streets.

In fact, in 2018 the city sued Walgreens as well as drug manufacturers and distributors because of the opioid epidemic, claiming they caused a “public nuisance.”

Then, yes, the money. All the other defendants settled with the city for $114 million, including $54 million opioid manufacturers Allergan and Teva agreed to pay on the eve of closing arguments. Walgreens was left as the sole defendant.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer last week declared that Walgreens was responsible for much of San Francisco’s drug problems. He ruled the company over-dispensed highly addictive drugs without proper oversight and failed to report suspicious orders.

San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu said, “Pharmacists were pressured to fill, fill, fill, and as a result Walgreens filled our streets with opioids.”

A spokesman for Walgreens responded that the chain is disappointed in the outcome because it’s “not supported by facts and the law.” He added the company looks forward to addressing other issues on their appeal of the decision.

While there have been lawsuits against manufacturers and distributors of drugs, pharmacies have not been targeted as often. However, there was one huge case in Ohio last year that found CVS, Walgreens and Walmart “recklessly distributed massive amounts of pain pills in two Ohio counties.”

In May, Walgreens reached a $683 million settlement with the state of Florida over the claim the firm contributed to an opioid crisis there by improperly distributing millions of painkillers. The company didn’t admit wrongdoing but will pay the fines to the state over 18 years.

The company also faces litigation on similar charges in a number of other states, including Alabama, Michigan and New Mexico.

It seems to me this is all a miscarriage of justice. If the states and cities really want to put the pressure on someone responsible for the “over-prescribing of opioids,” they need to look at the physicians. The pharmacies do not write prescriptions. The customer comes in, gives them the script from the doctor, and they fill it. It isn’t up to the pharmacy to determine if that person should or should not be taking those pills.

There must be a way for a legitimate pharmacist to contact a doctor to ask about a prescription written for a certain patient. It should not be the responsibility of the pharmacist to decide.

If there is a physician who is a “Dr. Feelgood” and is prescribing the pills recklessly, he should be held legally responsible, financially responsible and, in fact, should lose his license to practice medicine.

It seems to me the law is rigged against the pharmacies. They have the deep pockets – read that “the money” – to make those lawsuits pay off for the cities and states.

But let’s face it, no matter how large the financial judgments, none of them will help San Francisco or any other addicted city solve the problem. It’s more than a pill causing it, and Walgreens and other pharmacies should not be expected to pay the bill.

Follow Barbara Simpson on Facebook.


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