Cost of Abating Opioid Crisis in 2 Ohio Counties Is $1B Each, Attorney Says

The cost of abating the ongoing opioid crisis in two Ohio counties is $1 billion per each county, an attorney for the counties said.

Lake and Trumbull counties outside Cleveland filed a lawsuit in 2018 against retail pharmacy companies CVS, Walgreens, Walmart and Giant Eagle for contributing to the deadly and expensive crisis that has continued to rage in the counties.

"They're going to say, 'We're not any part of the problem,'" attorney Mark Lanier said. "They're going to blame everyone but themselves."

Another pharmacy retailer, Rite-Aid, settled with Lake and Trumbull counties in August. Trumbull County was paid a $1.5 million settlement by the company, and the amount paid to Lake County has not been disclosed.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Ohio Courthouse
Opening statements were scheduled for Monday afternoon in a federal court trial to determine whether retail pharmacy chains created a public nuisance in how they dispensed addictive painkillers in two Ohio counties. A U.S. flag flies outside of the Carl B. Stokes Federal Courthouse before a major drug trial in Cleveland, Ohio on October 21, 2019. Megan Jelinger/AFP via Getty Images

Around 80 million prescription painkillers were dispensed in Trumbull County between 2012 and 2016—400 for every county resident—while 61 million pills were dispensed in Lake County during that five-year period—265 pills for every resident.

This is the first time pharmacy companies have gone to trial to defend themselves. The trial, which is expected to last around six weeks, could set the tone for similar claims against retail pharmacy chains by government entities across the U.S.

U.S. District Judge Dan Polster is presiding over the trial. Close to 3,000 lawsuits filed in federal courts have been consolidated under Polster's supervision.

Attorneys for the four pharmacy chains have argued the companies didn't manufacture the drugs and that their pharmacies were filling prescriptions written by physicians for patients with a legitimate medical need.

"Pharmacists fill the prescriptions, they don't tell doctors what to prescribe," Kaspar Stoffelmayr, an attorney for Walgreens, said in an opening statement.

The rise in physicians prescribing pain medications such as oxycodone and hydrocodone coincided with recognition by medical groups that patients have the right to be treated for pain, Stoffelmayr said.

The problem, he said, was that "pharmaceutical manufacturers tricked doctors into writing way too many pills."

Lanier, in laying out the counties' case, said the companies to save money did not hire enough pharmacists and pharmacy technicians to prevent the diversion of pain pills. He said the companies failed to implement effective systems to flag suspicious orders or to train pharmacists and give them the tools they need to prevent the illegal diversion of pain pills.

"They are the last line of defense to prevent diversion because these are people who are putting the medicine on the street," Lanier said.

Lanier told jurors about the interstate pipeline that people from Ohio and other states traveled to buy pain pills from doctors who ran unscrupulous pill mills. He said the opioid crisis, which has lead to more than 500,000 overdose deaths in the last two decades, has been costly for Lake and Trumbull counties in terms of how it affects babies born to addicted mothers, the courts and law enforcement.

Attorneys for CVS, Walmart and Giant Eagle are expected to give opening statements on Tuesday morning with the counties putting on their first witness, a CVS employee, later in the day.

The trial will be the fourth in the U.S. this year to test claims brought by governments against part of the drug industry over the toll of prescription painkillers. Verdicts or judgments have not been reached in the others thus far.

Ohio Opioid Crisis Trial
CVS, Walgreens, Giant Eagle and Walmart are being sued by Ohio counties Lake and Trumbull for their part in the opioid crisis. Attorneys and staff associated with a federal trial of the pharmacies leave the Carl B. Stokes Federal Courthouse in Cleveland, October 4. Phil Long/AP Photo