Walgreens helped fuel San Francisco’s opioid crisis, court rules

Walgreens helped fuel San Francisco's opioid crisis, court rules
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Walgreens helped fuel the opioid epidemic in San Francisco by supplying and distributing addictive drugs without proper due diligence, a federal judge ruled Wednesday in what attorneys suing the retailer called a “wake-up call for the company.”

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer said Walgreens “substantially contributed” to one of the nation’s worst public health crises by failing to stop questionable orders and distribution of drugs diverted for illegal use, causing public unrest in a major city worst hit. Addiction and overdose. Walgreens is responsible for shipping About 1 in 5 oxycodone and hydrocodone pills were distributed nationwide at the height of the opioid crisis.San Francisco was the only drug company sued that did not settle, going to trial in April.

“Walgreens has a regulatory obligation to take reasonable steps to prevent diversion of drugs and harm to the public,” Breyer wrote. “The evidence at trial demonstrated that Walgreens breached this obligation.”

A trial will be held later to determine how much the company must pay the city to cover damages from the opioid crisis. The city does not yet have an estimate of the amount it will seek.

Walgreens spokesman Fraser Engerman said the company was “disappointed” in the decision and would appeal.

“As we have said throughout this process, we never manufactured or marketed opioids, nor did we distribute them to the ‘pill mills’ and Internet pharmacies that fueled this crisis,” he wrote in an email. “We stand behind the professionalism and integrity of our pharmacists, dedicated healthcare professionals who live in the communities they serve.”

City Attorney David Chew said the first bench trial to hold Walgreens responsible for the opioid epidemic “has national significance” in the long-running effort to hold drug distributors and pharmacies accountable. Because the company recently closed stores in the city, citing the effects of the drug epidemic, Chew accused Walgreens of being to blame.

“It’s like an arsonist complaining about a fire,” he said at a news conference.

The ruling marks a second blow to the pharmacy giant — thousands of lawsuits by states, cities and counties remain pending. Unlike the three largest drug distributors and drug manufacturers Johnson & Johnson and Teva, Walgreens could not form a national settlement. It didn’t go bankrupt because Purdue Pharma, the makers of Mallinckrodt and Insys.

In the 112-page opinion, Breyer detailed the city’s drug crisis and the timeline of Walgreens’ response to drug abuse. Paul Geller, an attorney representing San Francisco and other communities around the country fighting drug companies, said the ruling was “nothing more than a run-of-the-mill legal ruling,” pointing to details about the city’s crisis and ways. by doing Walgreens contributed.

“I hope this is delivered as required reading in big pharma boardrooms across the country,” Geller said, “because his painstakingly detailed judgment should be a wake-up call to companies and help ensure this never happens again.”

Peter Mooge, an attorney who represents San Francisco and other communities, said the ruling will help other cases.

“Walgreens has been hiding, covering up and running from the truth throughout this five-year case,” he said. “Walgreens knew its system to detect and stop suspicious orders was non-existent but continued to ship opioids at an alarming rate to increase profits. San Francisco is now one step closer to starting the healing process.”

The decision comes after the company reached a $683 million settlement with the state of Florida in May, halting a trial in state court. In November, Jury in Ohio finds company, along with CVS and Walmart, contributed to opioid crisis in two counties — First decision of its kind in the field of pharmacy.

Walgreens stopped distributing opioids in 2012 after the Drug Enforcement Administration shut down a warehouse.

But the city argued that the impact of Walgreens’ shipping and dispensing continues to be reflected as drug users switch from prescription pills to heroin to fentanyl as the illicit drug market flourishes.

Opioid overdoses, including heroin and fentanyl, have skyrocketed in San Francisco, where there was a 478 percent increase in those deaths between 2015 and 2020, to 584, according to city data. Opioid-related emergency-room visits tripled over the same period, to nearly 3,000 in 2020.

During the trial, city officials testified about the extent to which the crisis had infiltrated daily life. A park ranger said needles are removed from city parks “like changing toilet paper in restrooms.” When paramedics respond to someone who has no pulse and isn’t breathing, they assume it’s an opioid overdose.

Walgreen’s monitoring system for questionable orders was ineffective under the Controlled Substances Act, the judge said. Thousands of suspicious orders were sent to its pharmacies without investigation.

Breyer’s ruling criticized the company and convicted executives for failing to stop the spread of the drug and denying repeated internal requests for a central database of suspicious customer reports. He said the compliance chief was “vague and evasive” on the stand.

The judge sided with the city, agreeing that the company exerted pressure on pharmacists, who had little time and oversight before dispensing drugs. Pharmacists fill out due-diligence forms by paper and store them in filing cabinets rather than electronically. A pharmacist in one store cannot access records from another location.

If pharmacists refused to fill a prescription, they noted the refusal in the internal computer system, which was limited to 320 characters.

“Walgreens pharmacies operated in information silos,” Breyer said. “It didn’t have to be like this.”

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