Federal trial finds 4 died from overdose in pursuit of new opioids

Four people died in California after suffering from major opioid overdoses and three individuals died in Pennsylvania after suffering major opioid overdoses as a result of a fentanyl-laced painkiller, a jury has found.

Federal prosecutors previously accused CVS, Walgreens and Walmart of helping fuel the nation’s opioid epidemic. CVS would later receive more than $1 billion in fines from the U.S. government to settle federal charges of illegally stocking high amounts of opioid-based drugs. The prosecution has alleged that the retailer participated in a pattern of selling drugs to doctors who were writing prescriptions for far more pills than the drug would typically take.

Last month, Walgreens settled a whistleblower lawsuit and agreed to pay the federal government and plaintiffs $80 million. CVS settled in 2014 and received a $4.5 billion fine. Prosecutors say the companies’ extensive revenue from selling opioids helped fuel the abuse of those drugs and made the opioid crisis worse.

The federal lawsuit filed in New York accuses CVS, Walgreens and Walmart of conspiring to supply more opioid-based drugs in 2010 than would have been needed for prescriptions, but to drive higher profits, while harming the public in violation of federal law. The pharmacies all denied any wrong doing, and the trial determined the plaintiffs would have to prove their case to be entitled to damages.

As a result of the ruling last week, the plaintiffs could seek approximately $333 million. The damages were determined as a result of a recorded Nov. 2015 meeting in CVS stores in New York City during which CVS management was briefed about the harm of the abuse of oxycodone. An internal report on the incident indicated how internal policies surrounding abuse of narcotic-based products, including OxyContin, could change in light of its findings.

The administrative law judge who oversaw the trial testified that company executives worked on how to proceed with the lawsuit after the witness meeting, but that those discussions still took place in secret. The witness-filled meeting took place a few days after CVS settled a whistleblower lawsuit alleging that CVS had illegally sold narcotics to physicians who were doctoring prescriptions.

“It was not a boardroom, it was not a boardroom, it was an unsanitary setting,” the administrative law judge, Phyllis Mossberg, said in court, as cited by The Wall Street Journal. “Anxiety was running rampant.”

Mossberg said Walmart executives discussed the potential costs of implementing such a program and were planning to join a proposed New York lawsuit along with CVS and other retailers. “There was this big ripple in that room,” Mossberg said.

Walmart later decided not to join the lawsuit but was still investigating the scope of the problem, the judge said. “I don’t believe they considered themselves partners,” Mossberg said.

Walmart has been purchasing a large number of the very same drugs it sold to pharmacies during the period of time alleged in the criminal case and in the civil case.

“While this could have been a tremendous opportunity to help save lives, Walmart’s response was less than enthusiastic,” the judge said.

Correspondence found between Walmart executives and their counterparts at other companies also revealed that Walmart intended to avoid consumer scrutiny in purchasing prescription drugs, according to the trial testimony.

“Walmart was concerned that we were going to be put on the front page of some of the major newspapers with pictures of stores handing out 150,000 OxyContin pills,” one Walmart executive wrote to another, according to the report. “That is simply not good. If we were going to make any drug purchasing decisions, this is the thing we should be doing.”

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