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The Wall Street Journal reports that "a federal judge in Ohio has ordered the companies owning CVS, Walgreens and Walmart pharmacies to pay $650 million over 15 years to two Ohio counties after a jury found them liable for contributing to the opioid epidemic.

"The jury’s verdict last November, delivered after a six-week trial, came in a so-called bellwether case that attorneys elsewhere have watched closely. It was the first decision reached among lawsuits targeting pharmacy chains for their alleged role in the opioid crisis.

"U.S. Judge Dan Polster in Cleveland issued his order on Wednesday after a separate nonjury trial was held to determine the appropriate amount the companies must pay."

Essentially, the story says, the ruling means that "the defendants were responsible for a portion of plans created for Lake and Trumbull counties, the plaintiffs in the case, to address problems linked to the opioid epidemic. He ordered the companies to immediately pay two year’s worth of those payments into a fund, or $86.7 million of the total $650.6 million."

The three companies said they plan to appeal both the jury verdict from last fall as well as the judge's order this week.

The Journal writes that "attorneys for Lake and Trumbull counties had argued in their lawsuit that the pharmacies failed to stop pain pills from flooding the northeastern Ohio counties and false prescriptions from being filled. More than 80 million opioid pills were shipped to Trumbull County, with a population of less than 200,000, from 2006 to 2012, according to government data. More than 60 million opioid pills were shipped to Lake County, with a population of about 230,000, over that period.

"The counties argued that by enabling the opioid crisis the pharmacy companies had created a public nuisance costing them each about $1 billion in law-enforcement, social-services and court expenses."

The New York Times writes that "Judge Polster’s ruling not only sharply scolds the pharmacy chains for their business dealings in the two Ohio counties, but also implicitly stands as a warning to these companies in other pending cases. Of the three groups of defendants, the pharmacy chains have been the most reluctant to settle cases."

KC's View:

I understand the argument being made by people like Michael DeAngelis, a CVS spokesman, who says that “pharmacists fill legal prescriptions written by D.E.A.-licensed doctors who prescribe legal, F.D.A.-approved substances to treat actual patients in need," and therefore, drug retailers should not be held culpable.

But it is interesting.  All three of these companies - CVS, Walgreen and Walmart - want to play a great role in the health care continuum.  They want their pharmacists to be more than pharmacists.  But not in this case.  In this case, they essentially bring out the "we were just following orders" defense.

I'm not sure about the legalities.  I do know that a lot of companies - including CVS, Walgreen and Walmart - made money on the opioid crisis.  It is hard for me to feel or find sympathy for any of them.