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CVS, Walgreens and Walmart ordered to pay $650 million for fueling opioid crisis

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A federal judge has ordered the nation's largest pharmacy chains to pay $650 million to two counties in Ohio hit hard by the opioid epidemic. The money will be paid by CVS, Walgreens and Walmart over the next 15 years. It'll help Lake and Trumbull counties recover from an addiction crisis that continues to devastate communities near Cleveland. NPR's Brian Mann is following the case. Hey there, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: OK. So these three chains - CVS, Walgreens, Walmart - they have always denied any wrongdoing. How did we get here?

MANN: Yeah, that's right. These companies have always maintained they were just filling legal prescriptions written by licensed doctors. But they were accused of recklessly dispensing really extraordinary amounts of pills, more than made any medical sense. Over one five-year period, pharmacies dispensed more than 140 million pain pills in just these two Ohio counties.

So late last year, a jury found that the pharmacy chains' behavior was so egregious it helped create what's known as a public nuisance in legal terms, fueling the opioid crisis. What happened today is that Federal Judge Dan Polster put a price tag on that verdict. He ordered these companies to pay $650 million to help fund things like addiction treatment programs.

KELLY: Right. And it's going to go to these two Ohio counties I mentioned. I'm thinking there's got to be a whole lot of counties across the U.S. that are struggling with the opioid crisis and must be eyeing this. How could this ruling resonate nationally?

MANN: Yeah, this could be a really big deal nationally. This was what's known as a bellwether trial. It tested some legal arguments about these pharmacy chains, whether they could be held accountable for their role in the opioid crisis. In this case, the answer was yes. They will have to pay. In his ruling today, Judge Polster talked about the historic nature of this moment, forcing companies to pay to remedy what he described as a tenacious and escalating national tragedy. Thousands of other communities have already filed similar lawsuits. So in theory, these pharmacy chains could be on the hook for billions of dollars.

KELLY: What are they saying, the companies?

MANN: All three companies said they will appeal. In its statement, the company Walmart said the real blame for the opioid crisis should fall on pill-mill doctors and government regulators. But one thing these trials have revealed, Mary Louise, is just how many pills these companies dispensed; vast quantities of pills, not just in Ohio, but nationwide. NPR's investigation last year found some pharmacists at Walmart tried to raise red flags about that over the years, allegedly about improper oversight. These are all claims that Walmart denies.

KELLY: Step back a little bit and just give us a sense of what's going on elsewhere on the litigation landscape. I understand some other companies have been settling opioid lawsuits recently. What's going on?

MANN: Yeah, that's right. One thing that sets these pharmacy chains apart is that they've refused to negotiate some kind of big national opioid settlement, some sort of big lump sum that would end their liability. Instead, they're fighting this in court. And as I mentioned, they plan to appeal today's ruling. But in the last few weeks, we've seen other companies, including drug makers Allergan, Endo and Teva, all reach big, comprehensive national settlements together worth more than $7 billion. In theory, that money will go to help fund addiction treatment programs all over the U.S.

KELLY: NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann. Thanks, Brian.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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