Walgreens to pay San Francisco $230M for its role in opioid epidemic

Walgreens has agreed to pay $230 million to San Francisco for its role in the city’s opioid epidemic following last year’s landmark trial that found the pharmacy chain liable for not performing proper screenings.

San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu announced the deal outside San Francisco City Hall today. If approved, the settlement would end claims from the last defendant of a 2018 lawsuit enacted by the city against the opioid industry. The case was the first of its kind in the region and the first to include defendants along the pharmaceutical supply chain, including drug manufacturing, distributors and pharmacies. A federal judge found Walgreens liable for “substantially contributing to the opioid epidemic in San Francisco.”

From 2006 to 2014, San Francisco County saw 163,645,704 opioids distributed, enough for 22 pills per person per year, according to the city attorney’s office.

“We have seen the devastating impacts of opioid addiction in our most vulnerable communities and this decision is an important step forward in our efforts to save lives,” said Director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health Grant Colfax, M.D., following the ruling. “San Francisco is committed to reducing harm associated with drug use, reversing overdoses and connecting people to the care they need. This case will provide more resources to continue our work with partners to ensure that our efforts to prevent overdose deaths and address substance use disorders are successful.”

The case began in April 2022 and reached a verdict in August. It was the first bench trial to side with the plaintiff in national opioid litigation and find Walgreens liable.

Judge Charles R. Breyer of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California found that for over 15 years Walgreens dispensed opioids without proper due diligence and failed to flag, report and cease suspicious prescriptions as required by the Controlled Substances Act.

Breyer stated that Walgreens permitted the filling of prescriptions without allowing pharmacists adequate time, staffing or resources to investigate red flags.

The city attorney’s office said that between 2015 and 2020, San Francisco saw a nearly 500% increase in opioid-related overdose deaths. During that time period, roughly a quarter of visits to the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital emergency department were opioid-related.

“This decision gives voice to the thousands of lives lost to the opioid epidemic,” said Chiu following the ruling. “This crisis did not come out of nowhere. It was created by the opioid industry, and local jurisdictions like San Francisco have had to shoulder the burden for far too long. We are grateful the Court heard our arguments and held Walgreens responsible for the damage they caused.”

In November, Walgreens announced that it would pay $5 billion in a nationwide settlement; however, the settlement did not pertain to the San Francisco case.

Many other large settlements have been reached in similar cases charging chain pharmacies including CVS and Walmart with negligence. The trio were included in a similar suit from two Ohio counties that ended in a $650.5 million settlement.

Attorney Jayne Conroy spoke with Fierce Healthcare about her work on the Ohio case. She said that on top of injunctions requiring chain pharmacies to ensure that proper protections are reincorporated in their workflows, settlements will be paid out to local governments to be used for programs to address opioid addiction.

Local governments have begun receiving settlement funds from regional and national settlements. Greene County in northeastern Tennessee is one of such locations, but, instead of directing the funds directly into opioid-reduction programs, the county has been focusing on paying down its debt. Mayor Kevin Morrison said city and county governments have been bearing the cost of the opioid epidemic for years.

“We’ve been dealing with this crisis for quite some time, but nobody wants to pay the bill as it comes,” Morrison told KFF HealthNews. “So, when these funds are made available, then we are paying bills that have been due for quite some time.”