CLEVELAND (AP) – A hearing has begun in federal court in Cleveland for a judge to determine how much CVS, Walgreens and Walmart pharmacies should pay two Ohio counties to help them ease the ongoing costs and problems caused by the opioid crisis.
A jury in November found the pharmacy chains responsible for recklessly distributing massive amounts of pain pills in Lake and Trumbull counties. It was the first time pharmacies in the United States (US) have been held responsible for the opioid crisis.
Plaintiff’s attorneys said before trial that each county needs about USD1 billion to repair the damage caused by the flood of pills, which caused hundreds of overdose deaths. Around 80 million prescription painkillers were dispensed in Trumbull County between 2012 and 2016 – 400 for every county resident – while 61 million pills were dispensed in Lake County during that five-year period – 265 pills for every resident.
An epidemiologist from Columbia University Dr Katherine Keyes testified on Tuesday that her estimates show nearly 6,000 people were addicted to opioids in 2019 in Lake County and nearly 7,600 suffered from opioid use disorder in Trumbull County that year.
Thousands of children in the two counties suffer from mental illness, learning problems and other issues like PTSD because their parents use illicit opioids, Keyes testified.
Drug overdose deaths increased since 2015 because of synthetic opioids like fentanyl in the two counties, Keyes said, and some of those users’ drug problems began after initially becoming addicted to prescription opioids. Children of parents who illegally use opioids are at a higher risk for addiction as well, she testified.
Attorneys for the pharmacy chains questioned Keyes at length about the methodology she used to arrive at her estimates.
Back in November, a jury in US District Judge Dan Polster’s courtroom sided with the counties and agreed that the way the pharmacies dispensed pain medication played an outsized role in creating a public nuisance.
Now, the counties are expected to present testimony from doctors to discuss the harm suffered by those communities, the opioid crisis’ impact on child welfare and other county agencies, and an abatement plan created for the counties.
“The jury sounded a bell that should be heard through all pharmacies in America,” the lead attorney for the counties Mark Lanier said after November’s verdict.
Across the US, many lawsuits filed by governments over the toll of the drugs have been resolved in recent years – most with settlements, and some with judgements or verdicts in trials. So far, drug makers, distributors and pharmacies have agreed to settlements totalling well over USD40 billion, according to an Associated Press tally.
Trials are underway in courts in West Virginia, Florida and California. A decision has not yet been issued after another trial last year in West Virginia.