The West Virginia Attorney General’s Office on Thursday announced lawsuits against two retail pharmacies for allegedly helping fuel the state’s opioid epidemic. It also released a report detailing a lack of federal oversight of the pharmaceutical industry.
Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said Rite-Aid and Walgreens failed to report, monitor and halt suspicious orders of pain pills to their pharmacies while opioid abuse ravaged the state. The lawsuits were filed Wednesday in Putnam County Circuit Court.
The lawsuits allege that Rite-Aid and Walgreens, combined, distributed nearly 117 million oxycodone pills in West Virginia from 2006 to 2014 from their own companies, and also ordered an additional 145 million pills from other pharmaceutical companies.
“Distributors are required to know their customer and the community they serve,” both lawsuits read. “[Rite-Aid and Walgreens were] in a unique position to comply with this requirement as [they] essentially distributed narcotics to [themselves].”
Rite-Aid pharmacies dispensed 140 million painkillers at its 108 locations in West Virginia from 2006 to 2012, according to a July 2019 Gazette-Mail report. Walgreens pharmacies dispensed 17.1 million painkillers at its 16 locations during the same time period.
Rite-Aid and Walgreens were among the top 10 distributors of opioids in West Virginia from 2006 to 2014, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Rite-Aid did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. A Walgreens spokesperson wrote in an email that all painkiller operations were conducted legally.
“Walgreens is a company of pharmacists who live and work in the communities we serve. We never manufactured or marketed opioids, and never sold opioids to the pain clinics, internet pharmacies and ‘pill mills’ that fueled the opioid crisis. Prior to 2014, unlike other companies involved in this litigation, we delivered opioids only to our own pharmacies, and the only place we ever sold opioids was at the pharmacy counter, when presented with a prescription written by a prescriber, with a valid DEA license, for a legitimate medical need,” the spokesperson wrote.
At a news briefing Thursday, Morrisey said the two lawsuits will hold another level of the pharmaceutical industry supply chain accountable.
“We’ve had many pieces of litigation involving the wholesalers, manufacturers — and now we have the distribution side for the retail [pharmacies],” he said.
In 2018, Walgreens bought all of Rite-Aid’s 1,932 stores nationwide, according to Forbes.
Also Thursday, Morrisey’s office released a 52-page report based on documents and data gathered from two Freedom of Information Act requests to the DEA.
The FOIAs “sought information from the DEA regarding the inputs the DEA received when setting annual production quotas from 2010 to 2016, and the information and methodology it used — if any — to account for diversion.” Diversion is when drugs are obtained illegally by the user, like on the street or through theft.
“Diverted drugs factored in roughly one-third of all fatal drug overdoses in 2016 that involved West Virginia residents,” the report reads, citing a state analysis.
The report found that, when drug companies asked the DEA for production increases, requests often did not include justification other than “mere assertions of consumer demand or increased sales.” The DEA also did not account for diversion or abuse of opioids, which were well documented at the time, according to the report.
The DEA also brushed aside mathematical models projecting annual opioid sales from the federal Food and Drug Administration, often accepting manufacturers’ estimates over the FDA’s, according to the report.
“The DEA was absolutely asleep at the switch,” Morrisey said Thursday.
A DEA spokesperson said they could not provide comment before print deadline Thursday.
Although the DEA was aware of growing opioid abuse and diversion in the country, the agency did not appear to have a system to account for it when setting annual quotas, according to the report.
“We couldn’t identify any meaningful methodology, and I think that’s absolutely incompetent,” Morrisey said.
“The diversion of prescription opioids was a significant driver of the opioid epidemic,” Morrisey said. “If you introduce a massive quantity of excess supply into the system, then there are a lot of entrepreneurial people who are going to want to sell it.”