TALLAHASSEE—Nearly a month into a jury trial over the opioid epidemic, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody on Thursday announced the state had reached a $683 million settlement with Walgreens Co.
The pharmacy chain was the sole remaining defendant in a sweeping lawsuit that the attorney general’s office filed in 2018 targeting opioid manufacturers, distributors and retailers.
About a dozen other defendants reached settlements with the state before a trial started April 11 in Pasco County circuit court.
Witnesses for the state continued to appear through Wednesday, a day before Moody announced the agreement with Walgreens. “After four weeks of the state putting on, under oath, into evidence, how Walgreens played a role in this epidemic, toward the end of our case, the white flag was raised, and we were able to begin negotiations in a productive manner. Today is a culmination of that trial,” Moody told reporters at a Tampa news conference.
The settlement calls for Walgreens to pay $620 million to the state over 18 years and to make a one-time payment of $63 million for attorneys’ fees, according to a statement released by Walgreens.
The agreement includes no admission of wrongdoing or liability by Walgreens.
“As the largest pharmacy chain in the state, we remain focused on and committed to being part of the solution and believe this resolution is in the best interest of all parties involved and the communities we serve across Florida,” Danielle Gray, executive vice president and global chief legal officer of Walgreens’ parent company, Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc., said in a statement. “Our pharmacists are dedicated health-care professionals who live and work in the communities they serve and play a critical role in providing education and resources to help combat opioid misuse and abuse.”
The lawsuit accused five of the nation’s largest opioid manufacturers and four distributors of causing the crisis, which Moody said kills 21 Floridians each day. The state later named Walgreens, CVS Pharmacy Inc. and CVS Health Corp. as defendants in the case.
The case was filed in Pasco County, one of the state’s hardest-hit regions in an epidemic that former Gov. Rick Scott in 2017 declared a public-health emergency. Before the trial, Florida reached $2.4 billion in settlements with all of the defendants—prescription-drug manufacturers, distributors and retailers—except Walgreens. The bulk of the money from the settlements will be steered toward what is known as opioid abatement, including treatment and recovery services.
Much of the trial focused on data about opioid-related overdoses and testimony about financial and social effects of widespread usage of highly addictive pain medications such as OxyContin, which was manufactured and marketed by Purdue Pharma.
The trial this week also included emotional testimony from Jacksonville Fire Department assistant chief Mark Rowley, who has served stints as a firefighter, nurse and emergency-medical technician. Rowley said his department has seen a 15-fold increase in the number of Naloxone treatments administered between 2013 and 2021.
The drug is used to rapidly reverse overdoses caused by opioids. Even as a nurse, Rowley said he initially “did not understand the hijacking of the brain” caused by highly addictive pain medication until the situation “hit home” in a series of opioid- related deaths of close friends, including fellow firefighter Travis Williams. Williams, 33, died of an opioid overdose in 2018.
Williams overdosed after he became addicted to prescription opioid pills, Rowley said, calling his former colleague a hero.
“During the day, during his shift, he’s out there saving lives. He truly was compassionate with people. He tried to give them pep talks when we would revive them. And yet when he’s out there saving people during the day from addiction, at night, and sadly alone, he’s struggling,” Rowley, wiping away tears, said Monday. “And if this can grab somebody like him and kill somebody like him, there’s not any one of us in this courtroom that it cannot happen to. It’s that powerful.”
Leading up to the trial in April, Moody’s office announced the state had reached a deal totaling more than $870 million with CVS and two drug manufacturers. That left Walgreens as the lone holdout. As the lawsuit began to gain traction in 2020, CVS and Walgreens filed what is called a third-party complaint against 500 “John and Jane Doe” doctors, alleging that prescribing physicians—and not the drug stores —we were to blame.
Moody punished the tactic as a “publicity stunt” and successfully asked Pasco County Circuit Judge Kimberly Sharpe Byrd to reject it. In a January 2020 court filing, CVS and Walgreens argued that the state’s lawsuit against the pharmacy chains “is nothing more than unsupported speculation ” that pharmacists “filled prescriptions for opioid medications that they should not have filled” despite the state’s “inability to support its claim with even one instance of an improperly filled prescription.”
“But pharmacists do not write prescriptions and do not decide for doctors which medications are appropriate to treat their patients,” the chains’ lawyers wrote. “While pharmacists are highly trained and licensed professionals, they did not attend medical school and are not trained as physicians. They do not examine or diagnose patients. They do not write prescriptions.”
This article was originally published by News Service of Florida, a GovExec publication.