SEATTLE — Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit today against Albertsons, Krogers and Rite Aid, whose pharmacy chains helped fuel Washington state’s opioid epidemic. Ferguson asserts the pharmacies served as the last line of defense in the opioid supply chain and failed in their collective responsibility to prevent the overuse of opioid prescriptions.
Ferguson also announced today resolutions with five other companies that produced or sold opioids. This will bring Washington state’s total recoveries to more than $1.1 billion for funding opioid abatement and treatment programs.
These announced resolutions are not final until certain conditions are met:
- Each company will evaluate the number of states that join then decide whether to proceed with notices to local governments.
- Each company will evaluate the number of litigating and non-litigating local governments in the states that join and then decide whether to finalize the agreements.
If the resolutions become final, these amount will be split between the state, county and city governments similar to Washington’s opioid distributor resolution.
“Opioids tore apart Washington families, overburdened our health care system and caused an epidemic of addiction we are still struggling to contain,” Ferguson said. “My office won a billion dollars to help fund recovery efforts, but I am not done. I will continue to hold accountable the corporations that enriched themselves off the suffering of Washington families.”
Ferguson filed the lawsuit in King County Superior Court against Albertsons, Kroger and Rite Aid. Those companies also acquired pharmacy chains like Safeway, QFC, Fred Meyer and Bartell Drugs. The lawsuit asserts they collectively ignored federal regulations, put profits over safety and knowingly oversupplied prescription opioids into Washington state. This oversupply led to a separate illegal market that flooded communities with highly addictive and dangerous drugs and local governments are still coping with the damage these pharmacies helped cause.
Pharmacies, the lawsuit asserts, serve as a final barrier that prevents overprescribing controlled substances. These companies illegally, recklessly and negligently filled opioid orders without adequately investigating “red flags” of fraud or overprescribing.
This led to predictable failures.
These national companies had a wealth of data at their fingertips to monitor and dispense prescriptions in a safe manner, but they failed to give it to their own pharmacists. The companies tied their pharmacists’ pay to how fast they filled prescriptions, hindering their pharmacists from doing their job and checking that a prescription was safe for that customer.
All three corporations have a history of filling prescriptions that came from medical providers whose prescribing license was suspended or revoked. All three corporations also previously paid penalties for violating federal rules regarding opioids. For instance, Bartell Drugs paid an $800,000 finein 2020 for allegations it filled prescriptions from medical providers whose licenses had been suspended or restricted at least 400 times.
Ferguson asserts the pharmacies’ conduct was an unfair business practice that violated the state Consumer Protection Act. He also asserts their conduct violated the state’s public nuisance law by contributing to the opioid crisis in communities across the state. The lawsuit asks the court to award penalties of $7,500 for each violation of the Consumer Protection Act and take injunctive actions to prevent further damage to communities. Ferguson expects this could total hundreds of millions of dollars or more.
Assistant Attorneys General Kelsey Endres, Jonathan Guss, Susan Llorens and Martha Rodriguez-Lopez; paralegals Morgan Mills, Alicia Stensland, Kristina Clarke, Kellie Tappan and Robbyn Ramirez; and legal assistants Katy VanDeWalker, Tally Locke and Jennifer Wood from the Complex Litigation Division are handling the case for Washington.
Washington state signs new resolutions with other pharmacies, opioid producers
Ferguson also recently signed multistate resolutions with five other companies, which the Attorney General’s Office estimates could total:
- CVS: $110.6 million to Washington state over 10 years;
- Walgreens: $120.3 million to Washington state over 15 years;
- Walmart: $62.6 million to Washington state and 97% of that paid in the first year;
- Teva: $90.7 million to Washington state over the next 13 years; and
- Allergan: $50 million to Washington state over the next seven years.
As part of the resolutions, CVS, Walgreens and Walmart will tightly monitor opioid prescriptions and prevent patients from seeking multiple prescriptions.
The estimated $434.4 million in resolutions from these companies as well as others like Purdue, McKinsey, Mallinckrodt and the three major opioid distributors will bring Washington state’s overall total to more than $1.1 billion to help fund the state’s opioid abatement and recovery programs.
In October, all 125 eligible local governments signed onto the $518 million resolution stemming from Ferguson’s earlier lawsuits against opioid distributors. Similarly, local governments will also need to sign onto these new resolutions to accept half of the funds from the CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Teva and Allergan resolutions. The sign-on process is expected to begin in early 2023. The other half of the funds will go to the state to fund opioid remediation.
All of the funds are restricted for use with opioid remediation programs consistent with the state Opioid Response Plan. Recoveries can be used to address the Fentanyl epidemic.
Approved strategies include:
- Improving and expanding treatment for opioid use disorder;
- Supporting individuals in treatment and recovery, including providing comprehensive wrap-around services to individuals with opioid use disorder, including housing, transportation, education, job placement, job training or childcare;
- Addressing the needs of pregnant women and their families, including those with babies with neonatal disorder;
- Preventing opioid misuse, overprescribing and overdoses through, among other strategies, school-based and youth-focused programs, public education campaigns, increased availability and distribution of naloxone and other drugs that treat overdoses, additional training and enhancements to the prescription drug monitoring program; and
- Supporting first responders.
Lawsuit still pending against Johnson & Johnson
A January 2020 lawsuit Ferguson filed against Johnson & Johnson, one of the largest suppliers of the raw materials used to produce opioid pain medications, is currently on hold. An appellate court is reviewing, at Ferguson’s request, Johnson & Johnson’s attempt during discovery to gather medical information from millions of Washington residents that is protected from disclosure and irrelevant to the case. The trial is likely to be rescheduled in 2023.
Ferguson asserts Johnson & Johnson, along with several of its subsidiaries, fueled the opioid epidemic in Washington state by embarking on a massive deceptive marketing campaign and convincing doctors and the public that their drugs are effective for treating chronic pain and have a low risk of addiction, contrary to overwhelming evidence. Johnson & Johnson deceptively marketed the long-term use of opioids at high doses without documented evidence of their effectiveness, ignoring the well-documented risks of its drugs.
That lawsuit is also filed in King County Superior Court.
Key facts from the opioid crisis in Washington state
The following are some key facts about the opioid crisis included in the lawsuit against the pharmacies:
- Between 2006 and 2021, opioid overdoses killed more than 12,000 Washingtonians, more than either car accidents or firearms.
- In 2011 alone, 112 million daily doses of prescription opioids were pumped into Washington — enough for a 16-day supply for every woman, man and child in the state.
- In 2015, eight Washington counties had more opioid prescriptions than residents.
- In 2021, an average of four or more Washingtonians died each day from opioid overdoses.
- Approximately 80% of heroin users report using prescription opioids before beginning heroin use.
- Overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, doubled statewide from 2019 to 2020, then almost doubled again from 2020 to 2021. The numbers continue to rise, with the number of deaths in King County in the first three quarters of 2022 alone already exceeding the total deaths from overdoses in 2021.