CLEVELAND -- Five retail chains flooded two Ohio counties with tens of millions of prescription painkillers through their pharmacies while taking few if any steps to stop drugs from being illegally diverted, according to updated lawsuits unsealed in U.S. District Court in Cleveland.
The counties are Lake and Trumbull in northeast Ohio. Their lawsuits made public Wednesday allege CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, Walmart and Giant Eagle helped fuel a national drug crisis that resulted in more than 430,000 deaths since 2000.
The counties' complaints are scheduled for trial in May 2021 before U.S. District Judge Dan Polster, who is overseeing more than 2,000 lawsuits filed by governments, tribal authorities and others in Cleveland.
Their lawsuits are the first to target retail chains as both distributors and dispensers of prescription painkillers.
Ohio's much larger Cuyahoga and Summit counties settled a lawsuit against drug manufacturers and distributors ahead of trial last November for $260 million.
A trial for claims by Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, and Summit County, which includes Akron, against retail chains is scheduled for November. Pharmacies are not part of that complaint after an appeals court sided with the companies, saying Polster improperly included them.
According to the latest lawsuits, the chain's pharmacies bought more than 61 million oxycodone and hydrocodone pills, painkillers most frequently diverted and abused, in Lake County between 2006 and 2014. That is roughly 266 pills for every Lake County resident during that period. The chains' Trumbull County pharmacies received 67 million of those pills, roughly 320 pills for every resident.
“They were keenly aware of the oversupply of prescription opioids through the extensive data and information they developed and maintained as both distributors and retail sellers of opioids," the lawsuits claim.
The companies “facilitated the supply of far more opioids that could have been justified to serve a legitimate market,” the lawsuits said.
CVS spokesman Michael DeAngelis in a statement said that opioids are made and marketed by drug manufacturers, not pharmacists, and the lawsuits' use of “decades old documents without context is misleading and doesn't change the facts.”
“Pharmacists dispense opioid prescriptions written by a licensed physician for a legitimate medical need,” DeAngelis said.
Walgreens spokesman Phil Caruso referred to an earlier statement from the company that said it never manufactured or marketed opioids and delivered prescription painkillers only to its pharmacies. Pharmacists are obliged to fill prescriptions from physicians as they are written, the company said.
A spokesman for Giant Eagle declined to comment about the lawsuits on Thursday.
Walmart and Rite-Aid did not respond to requests for comment.