The two largest U.S. pharmacy chains, CVS Health and Walgreen Co., announced agreements in principle Wednesday to pay about $5 billion each to settle lawsuits nationwide over the toll of opioids, and a lawyer said Walmart, a third pharmacy behemoth, is in discussions for a deal.
The prospective settlements are part of a shift in the legal landscape surrounding the opioid epidemic. Instead of suspense over whether companies in the drug industry would be held to account through trials or settlements, the big question is now how their money will be used and whether it will make a difference in fighting a crisis that has only intensified.
The deals, if completed, would end thousands of lawsuits in which governments claimed pharmacies filled prescriptions they should have flagged as inappropriate. With settlements already proposed or finalized between some of the biggest drugmakers and distribution companies, the recent developments could be among the last multibillion-dollar settlements to be announced.
They also would bring the total value of all settlements to more than $50 billion, with most of it required to be used by state and local governments to combat opioids, which have been linked to more than 500,000 deaths in the U.S. over the past two decades.
“It’s one more culprit of the overdose crisis that is having to pay their dues,” said Courtney Gary-Allen, organizing director of the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project. “Average Americans have been paying it for a long time.”
Gary-Allen, who is a member of a council that will help determine how Maine uses its opioid settlement funds, said more money to address the problem will help. In her state, she said, the needs include more beds for medical detox and for treatment.
Neither Woonsocket, Rhode Island-based CVS nor Deerfield, Illinois-based Walgreens is admitting wrongdoing.
Under the tentative plans, CVS would pay $4.9 billion to local governments and about $130 million to Native American tribes over a decade. Walgreens would pay $4.8 billion to governments and $155 million to tribes over 15 years. The exact amount depends on how many governments join the deals.
Both noted they have been addressing the crisis through such measures as starting educational programs and installing safe disposal units for drugs in stores and police departments. And both said the settlements would allow them to help while staying focused on their business.
Paul Geller, a lawyer for governments in the lawsuits, said talks with Walmart continue. Walmart representatives would not comment Wednesday.
If these settlements are completed, they would leave mostly smaller drug industry players as defendants in lawsuits. Just this week, a group of mostly regional pharmacy chains sent to a judge, who is overseeing federal litigation, information about claims they face, a possible precursor to scheduling trials or mediating settlements involving some of those firms.
Most of the nation’s opioid overdose deaths initially involved prescription drugs. As governments, doctors and companies took steps to make them harder to abuse and to obtain, people addicted to them increasingly switched to heroin, which proved more deadly.
In recent years, opioid deaths have soared to record levels of around 80,000 a year. Most of those deaths involve illicitly produced versions of the powerful lab-made drug fentanyl, which is appearing throughout the U.S. supply of illegal drugs.
Distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson this year finalized a combined opioids settlement worth $21 billion, and drugmaker Johnson & Johnson finalized a $5 billion deal.
Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, and members of the Sackler family who own the company have a proposed settlement that would involve up to $6 billion in cash, plus the value of the company, which would be turned into a new entity with its profits used to combat the epidemic. That plan has been put on hold by a court.