Who is to blame for the opioid crisis? In Florida, Walgreens and CVS point finger at physicians

In lawsuits around the U.S. that blame major pharmacy chains, such as Walgreens and CVS, for the country’s opioid crisis, the healthcare giants appear to be following a similar legal strategy: Blame the doctors instead.

In Florida earlier this month, Walgreens and CVS filed a third-party complaint that says that 500 anonymous physicians—Dr. John and Jane Doe—are responsible for fueling that state’s opioid epidemic, not the pharmacists who filled the opioid prescriptions.

It comes after a group of major pharmacy chains that included CVS and Walgreens, filed legal action in an Ohio court in January to shift the responsibility to physicians in a major federal opioid trial that claims the large companies are culpable for prescribing the drugs that have fueled the opioid crisis.

In those filings, the pharmacy chains, which also included Walmart, Rite Aid, HBC and Discount Drug Mart, said it was actually hundreds of Ohio physicians and other healthcare practitioners who write the prescriptions that bear the blame for providing opioids to patients—not the pharmacists who filled those prescriptions.

Florida’s Attorney General Ashley Moody was having none of that legal argument. “This stunt is simply a tone-deaf distraction by two of the wrongdoers in the national opioid crisis that is claiming 15 lives in Florida every single day,” Moody said in a statement.

She filed a motion to strike or sever the third-party complaint (PDF) filed by CVS Pharmacy Inc. and the Walgreen Company, pharmacy retailers who were named as co-defendants in a suit brought by the Attorney General’s office against Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, and other manufacturers, distributors and chain pharmacies. 

In her motion to throw out the third-party complaint in Florida, Moody said CVS and Walgreens have records that include the names of the doctors who wrote the opioid prescriptions, “Yet, CVS and Walgreens have not named a single prescriber and, instead, have filed this pleading against 500 John and Jane Doe defendants,” she wrote. “Our complaint alleges that these national pharmacies are responsible for knowingly flooding Florida with billions of dangerous and addictive pills all while the opioid crisis continued to spiral out of control."

Like several other states seeking to recoup millions of dollars spent battling the costly opioid epidemic, Florida filed a lawsuit in 2018 that named the two retail pharmacy giants as defendants.

RELATED: Kentucky hospitals sue drugmakers, distributors and retailers for opioid epidemic costs

The defendants should have known they were fueling an opioid epidemic, the lawsuit said. A Walgreen’s drug distribution center sent 2.2 million opioid tablets to a single pharmacy in tiny Hudson, Florida, in 2011 a roughly six-month supply for each of its 12,000 residents, the lawsuit said. CVS distributed more than 700 million opioid doses in Florida between 2006 and 2014, it said.

In response, Walgreens and CVS filed a third-party complaint in January saying they are not liable for the opioid crisis and asking the court to focus on the physicians who prescribe the drugs.

"Pharmacists do not write prescriptions and do not decide for doctors which medications are appropriate to treat their patients," the complaint says. "While pharmacists are highly trained and licensed professionals, they did not attend medical school and are not trained as physicians. They do not examine or diagnose patients. They do not write prescriptions."