Walgreens to pay $83 mln to settle West Virginia's opioid claims

A person rides past a Walgreens truck, owned by the Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc., in Manhattan, New York City
A person rides past a Walgreens truck, owned by the Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc., in Manhattan, New York City, U.S. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
  • West Virginia has opted out of nationwide opioid settlements
  • Kroger Co is only defendant that has not settled with the state

(Reuters) - Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc has agreed to pay West Virginia $83 million to settle the state's lawsuit accusing it of fueling the opioid epidemic there through lax oversight of its pill sales.

The deal, announced Wednesday by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, is not part of a $5.7 billion nationwide settlement Walgreens reached with state and local governments last year.

West Virginia, which previously opted out of nationwide settlements with drugmakers and distributors, has now secured more than $900 million from drugmakers, distributors and pharmacies, Morrisey said at a press conference Wednesday, a larger amount per capita than any other state.

"I dare anyone to say they would have done better than what we were able to accomplish here," Morrisey said of his decision to reject the nationwide deals.

Walgreens spokesperson Fraser Engerman said the settlement "will allow us to keep our focus on the health and wellbeing of our customers and patients, while making positive contributions to address the opioid crisis."

Of the companies West Virginia sued over their alleged role in the opioid epidemic, only supermarket chain and pharmacy operator Kroger Co has not settled. The company had been set to go to trial alongside Walgreens in June but will now face trial alone.

Prescriptions for opioids rose sharply in the 1990s as companies aggressively promoted the drugs, long used primarily in cancer patients, as a safe way to treat all kinds of chronic pain.

Overdoses involving opioids, including prescription pills and heroin, surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing 38% in 2020 over the previous year and another 15% in 2021, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

West Virginia had the highest drug overdose death rate of any state in 2020, the latest year for which state-by-state data was available, according to the CDC.

In more than 3,300 lawsuits, beginning in 2017, state, local and Native American tribal governments accused drugmakers of downplaying the risks of their opioid pain medicines, and distributors and pharmacies of ignoring red flags that prescriptions were being diverted into illegal trafficking.

They said the resulting human toll, as well as the strain on public health services and law enforcement, was a public nuisance that the companies must pay to fix.

The lawsuits have so far resulted in more than $50 billion in nationwide settlements.

Read more:

CVS, Walmart reach $147.5 mln opioid settlement with West Virginia

CVS, Walmart, Walgreens agree to pay $13.8 bln to settle U.S. opioid claims

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Brendan Pierson reports on product liability litigation and on all areas of health care law. He can be reached at brendan.pierson@thomsonreuters.com.