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Tennessee sues Walgreens for its alleged role in opioid crisis

Lawsuit cites a NewsChannel 5 investigation into a suspended doctor
Posted at 2:46 PM, Aug 10, 2022

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The state of Tennessee is suing Walgreens, claiming the retail pharmacy and distributor directly contributed to the opioid crisis.

Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III said Walgreens flooded Tennessee with opioids and ignored obvious red flags.

Slatery said Walgreens violated the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act and created a common law public nuisance through its unlawful sale and distribution of opioids.

The 175-page lawsuit cited a NewsChannel 5 investigation into a Nashville doctor who was later suspended for operating a pill mill.

"This is never going to happen here again," Attorney General Slatery told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

The lawsuit stated Walgreens "failed its duties by filling suspicious orders" of "unusual size."

And it said the company failed to report suspicious orders to proper authorities preferring instead to "reap the profits."

"A lot of times at a Walgreens, you could go out in the parking lot and see, 'hey there's a problem' or go to a pill mill, and look and see where they filled their prescriptions over and over and over again," Slatery said.

The Attorney General said Walgreens was unusual because it was both a distributor of opioids and a retail pharmacy.

"They had a dual role that most pharmacies don't have," Slatery said.

He said they could "move inventory from store to store to avoid" scrutiny, and that as a distributor, Walgreens was required "to monitor, halt and investigate suspicious orders."

The lawsuit focused on Walgreen’s actions between 2006-2020, when it operated between 200 and 300 retail stores in Tennessee.

It claimed Walgreens sold more than a billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pills in its Tennessee stores — that's 175 pills for every man, woman and child in the state.

A Walgreens in Jamestown, Tennessee, dispensed enough to give every Jamestown resident more than 2,100 pills according to the lawsuit.

"You can't ignore what was going on and just say 'well we were doing this.' You've got more responsibility than that," Slatery said.

Walgreens promised to fight the lawsuit.

The company sent a statement, "Walgreens never manufactured or marketed opioids, nor did we distribute them to the pain clinics and 'pill mills' that fueled this crisis."

Walgreens added, "We will continue to defend against the unjustified attacks on the professionalism of our pharmacists, dedicated healthcare professionals who live in the communities they serve."

The Attorney General's lawsuit singled out two east Tennessee Walgreens that filled prescriptions for patients from more than 3,500 zip codes, many up and down the I-75 corridor from Florida to Michigan known as the "Oxy express."

The lawsuit also cited our 2012 investigation into Nashville Dr. James Pogue.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates showed people waiting for hours outside Dr. Pogue's office on Franklin Road.

"I have been here six or seven hours," one patient said.

We showed how patients discussed selling their excess pain pills on the streets to raise money for their monthly doctor visits.

"I'm fixing to hand over 40 out of 150, so basically I got to make a little money on my Xanaxs and my other s**t," a patient said outside the doctor's office.

The lawsuit claimed Dr. Pogue's "blatant over-prescribing" was "aided by Walgreens."

It said "Walgreens own internal documents flagged Dr. Pogue as a prolific opioid prescriber."

It said a Brentwood Walgreens filled a "one day prescription (from Dr. Pogue) for 300 Oxy pills for one patient."

Our 2012 investigation highlighted a mom who was fighting for her loved one.

"How in the world can a doctor with a license feel good about giving a man that kind of medication," the woman asked in 2012?

She wore a mic and recorded conversations outside Dr. Pogue's office because she saw the amount of pills Pogue was prescribing.

"I can't sit back and watch him do this anymore," the woman said.

The lawsuit said despite the airing of our report in 2012, and despite concerns from an investigator Walgreens hired, the company continued filling Dr. Pogue's prescriptions.

Even after Dr. Pogue's license was suspended by the state, the lawsuit claimed Walgreens pharmacists "overrode (the DEA) block and filled his prescriptions anyway."

Other states have sued Walgreens in connection with the opioid crisis, but the Attorney General said Tennessee's complaint is well researched and unique.

"They were making so much money. They were really slow in responding to problems," Slatery said.

The lawsuit does not ask for a specific amount of money.

The Attorney General said damages will be left up to the courts to decide.