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Kentucky sues CVS, accuses company of 'fueling' opioid crisis by turning blind eye

"Despite supplying staggering quantities of opioids in Kentucky, CVS reported zero suspicious orders," Kentucky's attorney general said.
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A CVS pharmacy in Miami in September. Marco Bello / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Kentucky sued the drugstore chain CVS on Wednesday, accusing the company of “fueling” the opioid crisis that has ravaged the commonwealth.

“As both distributor and pharmacy, CVS was in a unique position to monitor and stop the peddling of these highly-addictive drugs from their stores,” Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron said in a statement. “Yet they ignored their own safeguard systems.”

One CVS in Perry County (about 100 miles southeast of Lexington) purchased over 6.8 million dosage units of oxycodone and hydrocodone from 2006 to 2014, Cameron said. That was enough opioids to supply every man, woman and child in the county with over 26 pills every year during that time period.

Another CVS, this one in Crittenden County (about 200 miles west of Louisville), bought over 2.8 million doses of opioid drugs, Cameron said. That was enough to supply everyone in the county with over 34 pills every year during that same eight-year period.

In total, CVS purchased more than 151 million doses of oxycodone and hydrocodone from 2006 to 2014 — more than 6 percent of the dosage units in the state during that time, according to the complaint filed in Franklin Circuit Court.

“Despite supplying staggering quantities of opioids in Kentucky, CVS reported zero suspicious orders for its Kentucky stores,” Cameron’s statement said.

In response, CVS spokesman Mike DeAngelis said, “We are prepared to defend against these allegations.”

“Opioids are made and marketed by drug manufacturers, not pharmacies,” DeAngelis said in an email. “Pharmacists dispense opioid prescriptions written by licensed physicians for a legitimate medical need. Pharmacists do not — and cannot — write prescriptions. Nor do they — or can they — examine patients, conduct tests, diagnose medical conditions, or determine medical treatment. That is the role of physicians, who have the responsibility to write appropriate prescriptions.”

CVS, DeAngelis added, has “been a leader when it comes to helping fight prescription opioid abuse and misuse.”

Kentucky had the ninth-highest opioid death rate in the country in 2018, with 23.4 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the most recent National Institute on Drug Abuse figures.

It also had one of the highest opioid prescription rates in the country, at 79.5 per 100 people, according to the agency’s figures.

CVS is not the only pharmacy giant the AG’s office has targeted.

The suit that Cameron, a Republican and the first African American to hold the office in Kentucky, filed against CVS is similar to the one filed in 2018 accusing Walgreens of exacerbating the “man-made” opioid crisis by distributing and dispensing millions of prescription drug doses and not raising alarms.

Cameron alleged that CVS had a “dual role in the opioid supply chain” as both a distributor and pharmacy but failed to comply with laws to protect customers from addiction and abuse.

“Leading up to and during the height of the opioid epidemic, CVS also participated in the marketing, advertising, and promotion of opioid products, working with manufacturers like Purdue Pharma and Endo Pharmaceuticals,” Cameron’s statement said. “The lawsuit states that CVS improperly normalized the widespread use of opioids by participating in these efforts.”

Kentucky has also sued drugmakers like Johnson & Johnson and various subsidiaries, accusing them of using deceptive marketing schemes to flood the state with opioid-based prescription painkillers.

Kentucky was one of the states where drug overdose deaths surged in spring 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic was accelerating across the U.S.