Suburban counties sue pharmacy chains, alleging they contributed to opioid crisis

Nineteen Illinois counties, including Cook, DuPage, Kane and McHenry, are suing CVS, Walgreens, Meijer, Walmart, Jewel-Osco and other major pharmacies, claiming they contributed to the overdose epidemic by "flooding" the nation with prescription opioids.

The complaint filed earlier this month in Cook County alleges the pharmacy companies provided the painkillers "in an alarming number with limited or no scrutiny as to the quantity of opioid painkillers being prescribed."

According to McHenry County State's Attorney Patrick D. Kenneally, the counties seek compensatory and punitive damages for the money spent combating opioid misuse and abuse.

The suit also seeks to provide money to municipalities, private organizations and counties to assist in the continuing "war on the opioid epidemic."

"One of my principal responsibilities as the McHenry County state's attorney is to hold accountable those persons or entities whose conduct causes others to suffer. This lawsuit is a continuing attempt to do just that," Kenneally said in a prepared statement.

The complaint alleges the chains "failed to monitor and restrict the improper sale and distribution" of certain drugs, effectively "flooding the United States, including the plaintiffs' communities, with prescription opioids."

According to Kenneally's office, the state received a total of 3,112,236,443 doses of hydrocodone and oxycodone from 2006 to 2014, amounting to 242 doses for every man, woman, and child in the state. Since 2016, McHenry County has lost nearly 350 residents to the opioid epidemic.

Responding to the lawsuit via email, Walgreens spokesman Jim Cohn said the company neither manufactured nor marketed opioids "nor did we distribute them to the 'pill mills' and internet pharmacies that fueled this crisis."

Cohn said the Deerfield-based company will continue to defend itself "against the unjustified attacks of plaintiffs' lawyers on the professionalism of our pharmacists, who are dedicated health care professionals that live and work in the communities they serve."

The opioid crisis is a serious problem, he added, and Walgreens pharmacists "will continue to be part of the solution providing education to our patients, lifesaving naloxone, and safe and convenient medication disposal options."

In a statement on its corporate website, CVS said it addresses the misuse of prescription opioids by working with policymakers, law enforcement and health care professionals to increase educational programs.

Additionally, CVS provides medication disposal units in 3,000 pharmacies nationwide, provides pharmacist counseling for patients filling their first opioid prescription and has invested in community addiction recovery and prevention efforts, the company said.

Last week, Attorney General Kwame Raoul announced that a coalition of state attorneys general had agreed in principle to a $450 million settlement with Endo International, which manufactures the generic and branded opioids Percocet and Endocet. The coalition includes 34 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

That agreement came on the heels of a $4.25 billion, multistate agreement in principle with opioid manufacturer Teva, which promoted potent fentanyl products "for use by non-cancer patients, deceptively marketed opioids by downplaying the risk of addiction and overstating their benefits," officials said.

In another multistate agreement, former opioid maker Allergan will pay up to $2.37 billion to participating states and local governments to assist in battling the opioid epidemic.

• Crains Chicago Business contributed to this report.

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