US pharmacy companies reach $10bn settlement over opioid claims

The deals mean CVS and Walgreens will pay more than $10bn for their roles in the opioid crisis that continues to claim thousands of lives in US.

Demonstrators commemorate people who died because of the opioid epidemic
Demonstrators set up tombstones commemorating victims of the opioid epidemic, which numerous US pharmaceutical drugmakers and distributors have been accused of exacerbating in a bevy of lawsuits [File: Seth Wenig/AP Photo]

Two US pharmacy chains have reached a tentative settlement over lawsuits brought by state, local, and tribal governments accusing the companies of contributing to the opioid crisis through irresponsible practices.

CVS Health and Walgreens announced agreements on Wednesday under which they would pay about $5bn each, with Walmart also said to be in discussions for a deal that could add billions more to the total.

Paul Geller, one of the lawyers who negotiated for the governments, said that settlements with pharmacies “will bring billions of additional dollars to communities that are desperate for funds to combat the epidemic” of opioid addiction.

The opioid crisis has been connected to more than 699,000 deaths since 1999, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And pharmaceutical drugmakers and distributors have faced a string of lawsuits over practices that critics say exacerbated and profited off of the crisis.

The potential agreements could mark the last round of substantial settlements over the role of various corporations in the opioid crisis, with more than 3,300 lawsuits filed against drugmakers, distributors, and pharmacies since 2017.

Lawsuits against CVS, Walgreens and Walmart alleged that the companies filled prescriptions even when red flags appeared that their opioids were being diverted into illegal activities.

CVS stated on Wednesday that it had agreed to pay $5bn over a 10-year period, and Walgreens said that it had agreed to pay $5.7bn over a 15-year period, per a filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), seen by the Reuters news agency.

CVS general counsel Thomas Moriarty said in a statement that the deal was “in the best interest of all parties, as well as our customers, colleagues and shareholders”.

Neither company admitted wrongdoing, and Walgreens warned that it had “strong legal defenses” that would be used against any future lawsuits.

Both noted that their agreements would not be final until certain non-monetary terms were finalised, and that the total amount could be reduced if not enough government plaintiffs sign on.

Reuters reported Wednesday that Walmart had agreed to a $3.1bn settlement, while the Associated Press reported that talks with Walmart were still occurring, according to Geller.

The settlements with CVS and Walgreens would bring the nationwide tally of completed settlements between companies and governments to more than $50bn.

Previous settlements netted $21bn from the three largest US drug distributors, $5bn from Johnson & Johnson, $4.35bn from Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd, $2.37bn from AbbVie Inc and $450m from Endo International Plc.

Plaintiffs had also notched some significant trial victories against pharmacy chains, including a $650m judgement in favour of two Ohio counties against CVS, Walgreens and Walmart, and a ruling that Walgreens had contributed to the opioid epidemic in San Francisco, California.

Purdue Pharma LP, whose prescription pill OxyContin is widely blamed for sparking the addiction and overdose crisis, and its Sackler family owners are seeking to resolve opioid claims against them through a $6bn settlement in bankruptcy court.

In March, victims and family members of those lost in the opioid crisis angrily confronted the Sackler family over their role in the epidemic at a bankruptcy court hearing.

Authorities have said that they plan to use funds from such settlements to combat the opioid crisis, which has continued to worsen, spurred forward by the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

According to the CDC, overdose deaths hit a record 107,000 in 2021.

A Congressional report released last month put the total cost of the opioid epidemic at more than $1.5 trillion.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies