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Attorney General Rutledge Sues Walgreens, Says Company Helped Fuel Opioid Epidemic

Opioid Attorney General Leslie Rutledge
Michael Hibblen

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge filed suit Monday against Walgreens under the state's Deceptive Trade Practices Act, saying the drug retailer failed to report and prevent suspicious opioid purchases as it was required to do under the law.

The complaint says the drug retailer failed to institute controls to prevent the diversion of drugs into the black market. Walgreens filled more than 142,090,680 dosage units of oxycodone and hydrocodone in Arkansas from 2006 to 2014. Nine of the company’s pharmacies were among the top 20 recipients of prescription opioids in the state.

“Walgreens helped fuel the opioid crisis by selling, distributing and dispensing far greater quantities of prescription opioids than [were] necessary for legitimate medical use,” Rutledge said in her press conference.

She said the company knowingly contributed to the secondary opioid market.

The state seeks “injunctive relief to stop Walgreen’s actions,” maximum civil penalties for each violation of the state’s consumer protection laws, damages including punitive damages, and “disgorgement of Walgreens’ unjust profits.” The state is entitled to civil penalties of up to $10,000 for each violation.

Rutledge said her office does not have a targeted dollar figure in mind. The suit was filed in Pulaski County Circuit Court. The state seeks a jury trial.

The company has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Arkansas in 2016 ranked second in the country with 114.6 opioids dispensed for every 100 Arkansans. Those numbers fell to 80.9 for every 100 persons by 2019, with the state ranking second. In 2017, at least 446 drug overdose deaths occurred in Arkansas.

Walgreens is required under Arkansas law and through its registration with the Drug Enforcement Administration to maintain controls against the diversion of controlled substances into the black market and must disclose suspicious activities such as large orders and deviations from normal ordering patterns.

The report accuses Walgreens of “knowingly” allowing widespread diversion to happen. It says the company knew its suspicious order monitoring system was inadequate. In 2006, the DEA informed the company of problems with its distribution center in Perrysburg, Ohio. The company did not implement a new program until it began piloting one at seven stores in 2009. That program did not block or report suspicious orders until September 2010, and then it only reduced the size of suspicious orders without reporting them. By November 2012, the program began to automatically reduce orders exceeding certain thresholds, but these were not reported. In one Florida town of 3,000, there were 285,800 oxycodone orders in one month.

The complaint says the program only monitored orders placed to its own distribution centers, not outside vendors. It also allowed stores that had reached their limit to place other orders, or they could transfer products from other stores.

It says Walgreens did not use data to identify doctors writing suspicious prescriptions, and it did not analyze prescriptions at stores relative to the communities they served. It also says Walgreens failed to respond to concerns raised by its own employees.

The company in 2013 agreed to pay $80 million to the federal government over allegations of record keeping and dispensing violations.

Rutledge said her office is looking at other large pharmacy distributors and other companies for potential investigation and that it is “leaving all options on the table.”

Rutledge has previously sued drug manufacturers Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma and Endo for violating the Arkansas Deceptive Trade Practices Act and the Arkansas Medicaid Fraud False Claims Act. In April 2019, she sued distributors Cardinal Health, McKesson Corporation and AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation.

According to the lawsuit, Walgreens is the country’s second largest pharmacy store chain after CVS with annual revenues of more than $130 billion.

Steve Brawner is a freelance journalist and contributor to Talk Business & Politics.