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At the Height of the Opioid Crisis Walgreens Handled Nearly 20 Percent of the Most Addictive Pills Shipped to Pharmacies

At the height of the opioid epidemic, Walgreens handled nearly one out of every five oxycodone and hydrocodone pills shipped to pharmacies across the United States, according to a new report from The Washington Post.

Walgreens dominated the country’s retail opioid market from 2006 to 2012, with the company buying about 13 billion pills — 3 billion more pills than CVS, its closest competitor, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) database of opioid shipments. Over those six years, Walgreens more than doubled its purchases of oxycodone.

According to a Washington Post analysis of the data, Walgreens obtained 97 percent of its pain pills directly from drug manufacturers, instead of from wholesalers like most other pharmacies, which allowed the company to have more control over how many pills it sent to its stores. By acting as its own wholesaler, Walgreens took on the responsibility of alerting the DEA of suspicious orders by its own pharmacies and stopping those orders. About 2,400 cities and counties nationwide allege, however, that Walgreens failed to report suspicious orders and incentivized pharmacists with bonuses to fill more opioid prescriptions.

From 2006 through 2012, Walgreens ordered 31 percent more oxycodone and hydrocodone pills per store on average than CVS pharmacies, and 73 percent more than other pharmacies nationwide, according to The Post’s analysis of the DEA database, known as the Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System (ARCOS).

In 2012, a drug distributor released a report for Walgreens that flagged nearly half of the company’s roughly 8,000 stores for dispensing high numbers of controlled substances, including oxycodone. After warnings from the DEA, Walgreens agreed in 2013 to pay $80 million to resolve allegations that the company failed to sufficiently report suspicious orders and allowed controlled substances, such as oxycodone and other prescription pain medications, to be sold illegally.

The large volume of pills flowing into Walgreens pharmacies made some stores targets for crime, including armed robberies and employee theft, according to police officials, board of pharmacy records and other published reports.

Now, Walgreens is involved in a federal lawsuit after other major distributors and drug manufacturers reached a settlement with two Ohio counties on October 21. The trial for Walgreens was postponed until next year. CVS and other major pharmacy chains are also defendants.

The company has responded to the report, denying that it incentivized pharmacists to inappropriately fill prescriptions and defending its practices.

“We never manufactured, marketed or wholesaled prescription Opioid medications. Our pharmacists have always been committed to serving patients in the communities where they live and work. Walgreens is completely unlike the wholesalers involved in the national opioid litigation,” Walgreens responded.

Sources: TWP 11/7/19; TWP 11/7/19; NYT 10/21/19

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