A federal judge in August of this year claimed that attorneys suing the San Francisco Walgreens pharmacy is a “wake-up call for companies.” U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer said Walgreens “substantially contributed” to one of the nation’s most severe and ongoing public health crises by failing to stop suspicious orders and dispensing medications that were diverted for illicit use. Resolutely, this caused a public nuisance in a major city that is among the most impacted by addiction and overdoses. Our Southern California rehab shares more below.
The opioid crisis or epidemic began in the late 1990s after pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community that patients wouldn’t become addicted to their opioid medications, causing healthcare providers to prescribe these drugs at a higher rate. Increased opioid prescriptions eventually resulted in widespread misuse of both prescription and non-prescription opioids before it became clear that these drugs were highly addictive.
Devastating effects of the opioid epidemic include increased opioid misuse, addiction rates, and related overdoses, as well as the rising incidence of newborns experiencing withdrawal syndrome as a result of prenatal opioid use. In 2016 alone, opioid overdoses accounted for more than 42,000 deaths, a number that has continued to fluctuate.
California was one of the states that was hit the hardest by the opioid epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), opioid overdose deaths increased to 75,673 in the 12-month period ending in April 2021 in California, up from 56,064 the previous year. Separate data also indicates that 5,722 overdose deaths were directly related to the opioid fentanyl.
There were also 21,016 emergency department visits related to opioid overdose in California in 2021 and a whopping 14,777,578 prescriptions for opioids in California alone in the same year. 3 Pinpointing which locations are most heavily impacted helps authorities decide where to concentrate prevention and treatment efforts and allocate limited resources.
A Walgreens in San Francisco, CA, was responsible for shipping nearly 1 out of every 5 oxycodone and hydrocodone pills distributed nationwide during the height of the opioid epidemic. This company was the only one sued by San Francisco that didn’t settle. Walgreens has regulatory obligations to take preventative measures to prevent drugs from being diverted, misused, and harming the public.1
According to the Walgreens investigation, the company repeatedly denied internal requests for a central database of reports on suspicious customers. The company also exerted pressure on pharmacists, who had little time and oversight before dispensing the medications. Pharmacists would fill out the due diligence forms on paper and store them in file cabinets rather than electronically, making proper maintenance more difficult.
It was also discovered that a pharmacist in one location could not access records from other locations, making it easier for customers to hop from one Walgreens to another for more prescriptions. If pharmacists refused to fill an opioid prescription, they noted the refusal in the internal computer system, which was limited to 320 characters.
City Attorney David Chiu said the bench trial has national significance and the important role of showing how Walgreens helped fuel San Francisco’s opioid crisis. As the pharmaceutical company had recently closed stores in the city, Chiu accused Walgreens of shifting the blame. The twist? Thousands of other lawsuits by states, cities, and counties remain.
Unlike the largest drug distributors, specifically Johnson & Johnson and Teva, Walgreens has not reached a national settlement. The company also did not go through bankruptcy as drug manufacturers Purdue Pharma, Mallinckrodt, and Insys have. According to Peter Mougey, an attorney who is representing San Francisco and other communities in the San Francisco Walgreens lawsuit, “Walgreens has hidden, covered up, and run from the truth throughout the entirety of this five-year litigation. Walgreens knew its system to detect and stop suspicious orders was nonexistent but continued to ship opioids at an alarming pace to increase profits. San Francisco is now one step closer to starting the healing process.”
Opioids are painkillers notorious for their potential for abuse, addiction, and fatal overdose. Millions of people have been impacted by the opioid epidemic since it began, resulting in numerous hospitalizations and deaths. Fortunately, as more awareness is brought to this ongoing crisis, facilities like our Palm Springs drug rehab have joined the fight by offering medically supervised detox and opioid addiction treatment to aid in recovery.