One of the nation’s largest pharmacy chains helped fuel the deadly opioid epidemic by illegally dispensing hundreds of thousands of prescriptions for controlled substances, the Justice Department claimed in a blockbuster lawsuit.
In a complaint filed in Cleveland federal court on Monday, the federal agency accused Rite Aid of repeatedly filling unlawful combinations of prescriptions known as “the trinity” — which include “excessive quantities of opioids such as oxycodone and fentanyl” — between May 2014 and June 2019.
“The Justice Department is using every tool at our disposal to confront the opioid epidemic that is killing Americans and shattering communities across the country,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.
Pharmacists who worked at Rite Aid, which has more than 2,330 stores in 17 states, engaged in practices with obvious red flags and the company intentionally deleted internal notes about suspicious prescribers, alleged Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta.
“These practices opened the floodgates for millions of opioid pills and other controlled substances to flow illegally out of Rite Aid’s stores,” Gupta said.
The prescriptions lacked a legitimate medical purpose, or were not for a medically accepted indication, or not in compliance with standard professional practices, the complaint said.
For example, the company removed some internal warnings from pharmacists about suspicious prescribers including “cash only pill mill???”, “writing excessive dose[s] for oxycodone” and even bluntly “DO NOT FILL CONTROLS”. according to The Guardian.
Rite Aid declined to comment when reached by The Post on Tuesday.
Drug overdoses led to the deaths of more than 500,000 people in the United States between 1999 and 2020, with more than 90,000 fatalities recorded in 2020 alone, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Justice Department accused Rite Aid of violating the federal False Claims Act by submitting false prescription claims to government healthcare programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.
It joined a whistleblower lawsuit filed in 2019 by two pharmacists and a pharmacy technician from Rite Aid stores in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and West Virginia.
Andrew White, Mark Rosenberg and Ann Wegelin brought a lawsuit against the chain in October 2019, alleging that the company pressured pharmacists to quickly fill prescriptions without conducting proper “red flag” research, which could include looking into a doctor who is writing large amounts of opioid prescriptions or customers who showed signs of doctor-shopping, The Guardian reported.
“Rite Aid violated these duties by dispensing extremely large amounts of opioids from its retail pharmacy stores throughout the United States,” the lawsuit said. “Pharmacies serve as the last line of defense between dangerous opioids and the public.”
Apart from Rite Aid, The Justice Department has also sued Walmart and drug distributor AmerisourceBergen Corp over their alleged contributions to the nation’s opioid crisis.
With Post wires