Major chains including CVS, Walmart say physicians—not pharmacists—responsible for fueling opioid crisis

A group of major pharmacy chains has looked 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 filings in an Ohio court Monday, six large pharmacy chains—CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Rite Aid, HBC and Discount Drug Mart—say it's actually 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.

The complaints, brought against unnamed prescribers, were made ahead of a federal trial set to begin in October to settle a series of national opioid lawsuits. The pharmacy chains are facing trial over their role in the opioid epidemic but are arguing they shouldn’t be held responsible because they were only filling prescriptions.

The pharmacy chains—which were included in a lawsuit brought in 2018 by Ohio’s Cuyahoga and Summit counties—asked the judge in the case to reject the claims brought against them.

In the court complaint, the drug companies questioned why the counties did not include so-called pill mills, internet pharmacies, independent pharmacies, pain management clinics and others that played a part in fueling the opioid crisis in the litigation.

“In a misguided hunt for deep pockets without regard to actual fault or legal liability, Plaintiff has elected not to sue any of these other parties,” the pharmacy companies said in the complaints, according to a report.

“A prescription for a controlled substance is an order for a medication that may be issued only by a physician or other authorized healthcare practitioner,” lawyers for the pharmacy chains argued in the court filings, according to an Associated Press report. “While pharmacists are highly trained and licensed professionals, they did not attend medical school and are not trained as physicians.”

In a statement sent to FierceHealthcare, Walgreens said it filed the complaint to respond to the allegations that pharmacists should not have filled prescriptions, written by doctors, for FDA-approved opioid medications.

“We strongly believe that the overwhelming majority of prescriptions dispensed were properly prescribed by doctors to meet the legitimate needs of their patients,” Walgreens officials said in the statement. “Plaintiffs broadly contend that the prescriptions were not legitimate and should not have been dispensed by our pharmacists.”

“Walgreens never manufactured, prescribed or marketed an opioid,” the company said.

Attorneys leading the opioid lawsuits, however, said their goal in the case continues to be holding the pharmacy chains accountable for not meeting the law in implementing measures to actively prevent diversion and abuse of prescription opioids.

“As we have said from day one, there are many parties that have contributed to the opioid epidemic. However, we have demonstrated and will continue to show that the origins of the opioid crisis and the fuel that spread the epidemic can be traced back to the behavior and practices of corporations in the drug supply chain. Without widespread wrongdoing by the opioid industry—including pharmacies—we would not be in the place we are today,” they said in a statement sent to FierceHealthcare.

“Pharmacies saw the devastating consequences of this public health crisis firsthand and we will show they did little to nothing to address them,” the lawyers said.