The abuse of opioids as pain relievers sparked a public health crisis that has claimed the lives of more than 650,000 people in the United States, mostly from drug overdoses, and is still raging. After the pharmaceutical companies had accepted compensation in the millions, the large pharmacy chains Walgreens, CVS and Walmart have now agreed in principle on a payment totaling 13.8 billion dollars (around 13.9 billion euros at current exchange rates).
Opioids are addictive synthetic derivatives of opium that were inappropriately and massively prescribed as pain relievers after Sackler family-owned Purdue Pharma got OxyContin (oxycodone in Spain) approved by regulators with aggressive marketing that underscored its potential risks and addictiveness underestimated.
Used primarily for terminal cancer patients, opioids have been used for chronic pain and have created the most serious public health crisis between AIDS and the pandemic over two decades. In addition, they have caused huge health expenditures and, indirectly, problems with crime and public safety.
CVS, which released quarterly results this Wednesday, issued a statement announcing the agreement principle under which it will take $5,000 million in 10 years. Walgreens has told the United States Securities Market Commission (SEC) that its agreement in principle includes the payment of approximately $4,790 million over 15 years, plus $154.5 million to the Native American tribes, plus an additional $753 million in legal fees to be paid in the case six years, making a total of around 5,700 million. Sources cited by Bloomberg assure that the deal also extends to retail giant Walmart, with 3,100 million paid for most once the deal is finalized. The agreements do not imply the express acknowledgment by the companies that they have committed an infringement.
The final amount depends on how many states finally join the agreement. Those three chains were found responsible for the opioid crisis by a popular Ohio state jury and ordered by a federal judge to pay $590 million to two counties hardest hit by the crisis. Another judgment declared Walgreens for the opioid crisis in San Francisco (California). The chains faced demands from tens of thousands of sufferers in other counties and states.
According to CVS’s statement, the settlement resolves “substantially all opioid lawsuits and claims brought against the company by states, political subdivisions such as counties and cities, and tribes in the United States.” If all conditions are met and the non-monetary terms of the settlement, which have yet to be determined, are finalized, CVS Health has agreed to pay approximately $5 billion ($4.9 billion to state and political subdivisions and approximately $130 million to Native American tribes) to be paid in years beginning in 2023, depending on the number of government agencies that agree to join the agreement.
The settlement, CVS claims, will fully resolve claims dating back a decade or more and does not imply an admission of liability or wrongdoing. “CVS Health will continue to defend itself against any litigation not resolved by the final settlement.”
“We are pleased to resolve these long-standing claims and it is in the best interests of all parties, as well as our customers, colleagues and shareholders, to put them behind us,” said Thomas Moriarty, general counsel of CVS Health. “We are committed to working with states, localities and tribes, and we will continue our own important initiatives to help reduce the inappropriate use of prescription opioids,” he added.
Walmart has not yet made any statements about the agreements made. There are other less established pharmacy chains that are also in demand.
Three of the largest drug distributors in the United States (Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and McKesson) reached a $21 billion multi-state settlement in July 2021 to settle the thousands of lawsuits they faced over the opioid crisis and at the same time the pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Jonshon agreed to take on another 5,000 million. Other agreements to offset the crisis were reached by Teva Pharmaceutical (4,350 million), AbbVie (2,370 million) and Endo International (450 million).
Opioid overdoses, including prescription pills and heroin, have increased during the COVID pandemic, with a 38% year-over-year increase in 2020 and a further 15% increase in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States disease prevention. The agency has traced much of the recent spike in overdose cases to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 50 times more potent than heroin and made illegally.
Purdue Pharma pled guilty in 2020 to deceit-selling the opioid without properly warning of its risks and won a $8.3 billion civil settlement, but it’s bankrupt and a court administering his assets to make it in exchange for compensation.
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