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McHenry County joins lawsuit against CVS, Walgreen’s, other big-name pharmacies for role in opioid epidemic

McHenry County, joining 18 other Illinois counties, filed a lawsuit against several big-name pharmacies, including Walmart, CVS and Walgreens, pinning blame on them for the nation’s opioid crisis.

The lawsuit, filed Aug. 15, alleges the companies – which also included Meijer, Albertsons and Kroger – failed to monitor and restrict the sale of opioid medication to its customers, used a “deliberate marketing strategy” to encourage the use of opioids and intentionally evaded restrictions on the medications’ sale.

Walgreens has never manufactured or marketed opioids, nor did it distributed them to online pharmacies or “pill mills” that it said fueled the opioid crisis, a Walgreens’ spokesperson said.

“We will continue to defend ourselves against the unjustified attacks of plaintiffs’ lawyers on the professionalism of our pharmacists, who are dedicated health care professionals that live and work in the communities they serve,” the spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for Kroger declined to comment as it is a legal matter. Officials with CVS, Walmart, Meijer and Albertsons did not return requests for comment on Tuesday.

The goal of the lawsuit, which was filed in Cook County, is to recuperate funds the county has spent spent battling opioid-related use and abuse, the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office said in a news release. The suit will also look to provide municipalities and private organizations with money needed to continue “this war on the opioid epidemic.”

Other counties included in the lawsuit are Boone, Bureau, Champaign, Cook, DeKalb, DuPage, Henry, Kane, Kankakee, Kendall, Logan, Macon, Macoupin, Piatt, Putnam, Rock Island, Stephenson and Will, filings show.

La Salle County State’s Attorney Joe Navarro, who was installed earlier this month as the county’s top prosecutor, said he recently became aware of the litigation is actively looking into La Salle County joining as a plaintiff.

“We should be and will be on board, no question,” Navarro said.

McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally called the opioid epidemic “disastrous” for both the county and the state. He called it a white working-class epidemic, which is a demographic that makes up most of McHenry County, he said.

“You have a whole system in the medical profession and in the pharmaceutical industry … that knew better,” he said. “They had all the information … to be able to forecast the devastating consequences that this was going to have. But there was just way too much money to be made.”

DeKalb County continues to deal with overdoses, both fatal and not, on a weekly basis, State’s Attorney Rick Amato said.

“Most struggles with opioids, including the deaths, aren’t reported to us for prosecution. They just happen, and unfortunately, there’s nobody to hold accountable,” Amato said.

The lawsuit details various policies and practices, such as “red flags,” meant to limit the amount of drugs given out and details how each of the companies came up short in those protocols. It also includes polling data from pharmacists, which the lawsuit uses to show the companies prioritized profits over people. Describing the companies as the “gatekeeper” between the drugs and the public, the complaint argues they failed in that role.

Most of those who overdosed on opioids dating back to 1999 involved medication prescribed by doctors, the lawsuit states. It also says that many would seek illicit drugs after their prescription ran out.

“This case arises from the worst man-made epidemic in modern medical history,” the lawsuit states. “An epidemic of addiction, overdose and death caused by [the companies’] flooding the United States … with prescription opioids.”

In McHenry County, more than 300 people have died in cases related to opioids since 2016, Kenneally said, citing numbers from the McHenry County Coroner’s Office. That number has fluctuated in that time, but declined from a peak of 78 deaths in 2017, Kenneally said. In 2021, that number was at 42.

Nationwide, overdose deaths involving opioids have slowed their rate of increase, but still went up to nearly 81,000 in 2021, up from 70,000 in 2020, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Deaths from opioids have increased despite prescription rates for them being almost cut in half from 2012 to 2020, CDC data shows.

Combatting opioid addiction needs to go beyond litigation, Amato said.

“The problem has gotten much bigger than just initial prescriptions and has led to dependency and death,” he said. “That’s why litigation like this and educating our public on the dangers of addiction as well as death and dangers of opioids needs to be done, so we can stop the problem.”

The lawsuit follows one filed in 2017 over the alleged deceptive marketing of opioid prescription drugs. That lawsuit, which was settled earlier this year, awarded McHenry County more than $3 million. DeKalb County was awarded $1.1 million.

The money was part of a global $26 billion settlement that included some of the largest pharmaceutical companies, including opioid manufacturer Janssen Pharmaceutical, McKesson Corp., AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health. The case involved more than 4,000 lawsuits from state and local governments.

Money from the 2017 lawsuit will go toward battling opioid addiction in communities by creating programs, along with promoting services and education.

Statewide, Illinois will receive $760 million over the next 18 years from the settlement.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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