CVS, Walmart and Walgreens ordered to pay $650M in Ohio opioid suit, but some providers worry about aftermath

CVS, Walgreens and Walmart have been ordered to pay $650.5 million to two Ohio counties in a case related to the opioid epidemic. 

The ruling was issued by a federal judge Wednesday and is meant to hold the pharmacy chains accountable for their role in fueling the opioid crisis. The lawsuit was initially filed in 2018, and the damages awards will go to opioid abatement measures. 

“These companies are rending the fabric of society apart,” the lawyer who led the plaintiffs’ trial team said, the New York Times reported. “They should not only show remorse, they should show they need to rectify what they’ve done. And they won’t do it. So the judge is doing it.”

As part of the latest ruling, the companies will be under monitoring and reporting rules within 90 days to make sure they improve how they dispense opioids and catch red flags. They must also put in place hotlines for anonymous tips on inappropriate sales and appoint a compliance officer to review internal processes. 

The trio of companies reportedly said they would appeal the decision, arguing they did not contribute to pill mills and operated legally to treat patients in need. Last year, a jury found the pharmacies guilty of dispensing prescription opioids for years without effective controls to prevent abuse, causing overdoses and deaths in two Ohio counties. 

In May, Walgreens reached a $683 settlement with Florida in a similar case, while CVS agreed to pay the state $484 million in March.

Though the latest judgment is expected to set a precedent for other communities trying to hold pharmacies accountable, some providers worry about the unintended consequences of potential new dispensary restrictions. In early August, Fierce Healthcare reported that Walmart and some locations of other major pharmacy retailers were no longer filling scripts of controlled substances prescribed via telehealth without a prior in-person visit, implicating patients in virtual recovery who need buprenorphine. 

“While well-intentioned, this ruling has the potential to cause further damage by spooking pharmacies from dispensing buprenorphine, a life-saving addiction treatment medication,” Zack Gray, co-founder and CEO of virtual opioid treatment provider Ophelia, told Fierce Healthcare in a statement. “This decision sends pharmacists a dangerous message: you're expected to overrule doctors—and not doing so can be costly."