CVS, Walgreens and Walmart to pay $900 million for role in drug epidemic

Federal prosecutors said CVS Caremark, Walgreens and Walmart fueled the drug epidemic by selling prescriptions to customers who turned to street drugs because of high or high-risk opioid use.

The settlement with the three drugstore chains calls for them to pay hundreds of millions of dollars over three years to the state of New York, which sued them in 2015.

A jury in Manhattan on Thursday found each company responsible for making payments to New York under the False Claims Act, which allows companies to be hit with fines for making false representations and then concealing the statements. The false claims occurred before the websites and mobile phones of CVS, Walgreens and Walmart started highlighting the ability to buy prescriptions online.

The trial is the latest example of New York using its False Claims Act to target the companies that manufacture, distribute or sell opioids — a painkiller that caused thousands of Americans to die in recent years and became a prominent campaign issue in 2016, when Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton criticized the drug industry’s policies and Republicans attacked her husband, former President Bill Clinton, for accepting campaign contributions from opioid makers.

The case was brought by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman under the False Claims Act.

The companies said they have already accepted responsibility for their roles in a crisis that roiled New York for years.

CVS and Walgreens each paid $200 million, and Walmart agreed to pay $77 million, to settle in 2016 a separate federal lawsuit charging the companies illegally profited from the opioid epidemic.

In announcing the settlements, CVS and Walgreens said that, while they weren’t alone in boosting sales of painkillers, they did not raise their prices to make up for increased demand from patients who were abusing the drugs.

CVS said it had put an end to filling all new prescriptions written electronically and from mail-order pharmacies, a practice the company had begun in 2014. In a blogpost posted at the time, the company said that since then, its customers have become less likely to be prescribed prescription painkillers and used the drugs less frequently.

“Our efforts have helped us reduce prescriptions for pain products by more than a third, while we’ve expanded these patients’ access to more alternatives, including non-opioid treatments and harm reduction medication,” wrote Adam Weinstein, the president of the company’s retail pharmacy.

Walgreens said it had ended mail-order prescriptions for oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone, sold to patients who wanted an alternative to an addictive narcotic. The store chain said it also eliminated its promotion of the drugs.

Walgreens said in a statement that when the company took action it “was attacked by some in the media.”

“While the magnitude of the painkiller crisis is a national crisis, our steadfast commitment is to remain a welcoming and caring business for patients and communities,” according to the statement.

WALGREEN’S AREA HISTORY OF ENDORSING MAYA ANGELOU, 2001 JULIE DUTTON / GREATER NEW YORK

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