Pharmacy Chains Now in the Spotlight for Their Role in the Opioid Crisis

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After several years of a growing (and warranted) focus on the pharmaceutical sector for its role in fueling the opioid addiction epidemic, the next pieces of litigation over the opioid crisis are coming into being. This new focus is on the individual pharmacies that helped dispense painkillers to the public.

The effort to hold pharmacies accountable is being spearheaded by lawsuits carried out in two Ohio counties against pharmacy chains that plaintiffs allege did not do their jobs to protect patients. These lawsuits have inspired plaintiffs in other states to take up the mantle and pursue both pharmacies and pain clinics for unethically over-distributing addictive painkillers into the community.

Ohio Cases Attract Headlines as Pharmacies are Held to Account

AP News ran a report in October 2021 outlining the most recent efforts of attorneys representing two Ohio counties to hold local pharmacies accountable for dispensing an excessive number of opioid painkillers into the hands of residents. The pharmacy companies brought to litigation were CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, and Giant Eagle.

According to the attorneys, about 80 million prescription opioid painkillers were dispensed in Trumbull County between 2012 and 2016. That amounts to 400 addictive opioid pain pills for every county resident. In Lake County, 61 million pain pills were dispensed during that period, amounting to 265 pills for every resident.

This case is significant because it’s one of the first instances if not the first instance in which pharmacies have been taken to court for their role in creating and contributing to the opioid epidemic. And rightly so, as the opioid epidemic has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of Americans becoming desperately addicted to opioids.

What the Pharmacies Will Say to Defend Themselves

Doctor visit

Though the case has only just begun, it’s expected that legal defendants of CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, and Golden Eagle will attempt to shift the blame off the pharmacies and instead place it at the feet of the pharmaceutical manufacturers that made the drugs and the doctors that prescribed the drugs.

The attorneys for the pharmacies will say that their clients did not manufacture the drugs, that they only filled prescriptions for patients with a legitimate medical need, that they were only following doctors’ orders.

However, comments like these merely shirk responsibility, and they completely ignore some of the underlying mistakes that pharmacies made, mistakes that led to overwhelming loss of life.

A Need for Responsibility

According to the plaintiffs, the pharmacies (to save money) did not hire enough pharmacists and pharmacy technicians to prevent the diversion of pain pills. Also, the companies failed to implement effective safeguard systems, called Red Flag systems, to indicate suspicious orders. Finally, the pharmacies did not sufficiently train pharmacists and give them the tools they needed to prevent the diversion of pain pills.

“They start putting more pressure on me to just be quiet and not to say anything more. They told me, ‘Do not reach out to the DEA, do not call the police. If you do so, your employment is going to be terminated immediately…’”

Furthermore, when individual pharmacists did speak up and attempt to alert their corporate bosses that pharmacies were distributing far too many bottles of pills, they were threatened. In an excellent piece of reporting by NPR, former Walmart pharmacist Ashwani Sheoran admitted that his corporate bosses threatened him with termination if he went to the DEA about what Sheoran believed to be Walmart’s unethical business practices. “They start putting more pressure on me to just be quiet and not to say anything more. They told me, ‘Do not reach out to the DEA, do not call the police. If you do so, your employment is going to be terminated immediately,’” Sheoran said.

Sadly, Ashwani Sheoran’s case is not an isolated one. NPR’s report goes on to release a declassified document by the Justice Department, indicating that Walmart pharmacists all over the country had warned Walmart executives about extremely high opioid sales that, to the pharmacists, appeared critically unsafe.

And though Walmart has denied allegations that it distributed painkillers excessively, the data suggests otherwise. According to NPR, “The company shipped the equivalent of roughly 5.2 billion opioid pills to its chain of 5,000 pharmacies between 2006 and 2012. Those are years when records collected by the DEA are publicly available.” The data also shows that Walmart pharmacies gradually increased their distribution of pills, year-over-year, from 2006 to 2012.

Better Future Practices are a Must

Pharmacy corporations need to put public health and safety above personal profits and private gain. They need to invest in proper training, staffing, and safety measures for pharmacy staff and technicians. It isn’t enough to come down hard on the rare case when a pharmacy becomes a clandestine “pill mill” and begins operating illegal drug distribution out its backdoor. These incidents happen occasionally, they do grab headlines, and pharmacies are vehemently and correctly opposed to such incidents.

But that’s not nearly enough. Pharmacy corporations also must address the distribution of opioid painkillers when distribution levels become excessive and extreme, as in the cases out of Trumbull County and Lake County. Pharmacies must ensure that all branches, chains, and franchises operate with the public good at the forefront, not their profit margins or return on investment.

The Need for Treatment for Those Now Addicted

It is undoubtedly true that all of the bad actors in the opioid epidemic absolutely do need to be held accountable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that opioid deaths have quadrupled since 1999, with nearly 500,000 Americans dying from a drug overdose between 1999 and 2019.

The opioid crisis has been a National Public Health Emergency for years. Any and all institutions that played a role in creating the crisis need to be brought to justice.

With that being said, successfully holding pharmacy chains accountable for their unethical actions at some distant point in the future will not help those who are addicted to drugs, right here, right now. Those addicted to drugs and alcohol need to receive treatment at qualified drug and alcohol rehab centers as soon as possible.

If you have a family member or loved one who is misusing opioid painkillers and who cannot stop, even if they had begun using such drugs for legitimate medical reasons, please make sure they get help at a treatment center. Please don’t wait until it is too late. Contact a drug and alcohol rehab today.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.