Could Retail Pharmacies Work Together to Help End the Opioid Crisis?

pills-2-300x225More than 2,000 opioid lawsuits are pending nationwide. A large portion of these lawsuits target drug manufacturing companies for their contributions to the opioid epidemic that is plaguing the country.

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For example, in one case earlier this summer in Oklahoma, a judge ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million for the company’s contribution to the opioid crisis. Furthermore, over the next few months, other courts will continue to handle cases as state governments work diligently to mitigate the impacts that the opioid epidemic has had within their jurisdictions. Although Big-Pharma companies are being targeted in litigation, however, retail pharmacies, large and small, are gatekeepers for opioid prescriptions. Given the role of pharmacies, they might be used effectively to combat the opioid epidemic. The role of retail pharmacies in the battle against opioid addiction is crucial, but not necessarily recognized by city governments. A new databank from the DEA tracks opioids at a local level, and makes it possible for pharmacies to band together in understanding unique trends within their own communities.

The Unprecedented Verdict against Johnson & Johnson

According to the referenced lawsuit, Johnson & Johnson allegedly violated Oklahoma’s Public Nuisance Law by supplying 60% of opiate ingredients that other pharmaceutical companies used for medications such as fentanyl and oxycodone. While the original claim sought $17 billion in damages, the ultimate $572 million verdict in the case will be enough to provide one year of services to combat the state’s opioid epidemic. With a population of 3.9 million people in Oklahoma, over a three-year period, more than 18 million opioid prescriptions were written by physicians to patients in that state. Other states present similar statistics to Oklahoma’s in their own claims against commercial pharmaceutical companies. These claims typically attack the manufacturers of opioid medication to recover monetary compensation, and such claims have been successful, with large verdicts rendered nationwide. However, although litigation can provide some monetary relief to compensate claimants harmed by the opioid crisis and establish rehabilitative programs for individuals addicted to those drugs, nevertheless litigation alone has not addressed the root problems of this public health crisis.

A Proposed Solution: Utilizing The Data Bank

Retail pharmacies serve as gatekeepers for end-users of prescription drugs. Some pharmacy leaders aware of the impact of their roles have invested in programs designed to reduce dependency on opioids. For example, in 2017, Walgreens launched a three-prong initiative to address the crisis. Under this program, Walgreens has responded to mitigate the opioid crisis by: 1) Providing safe medication disposal kiosks; 2) expanding national access to naloxone (a medication used to block the effects of opioids, including breathing overdose); and 3) providing education on the risks of opioid dependency and overdose. Additionally, CVS Pharmacy expanded its medication disposal program to keep opioids out of the wrong hands. But, while pharmacies each have employed their own tactics, there has been minimal collaboration among local governments and area pharmacies. If retail pharmacies banded together to address trends in opioid distribution in their local communities, those efforts could impact the opioid crisis significantly.

The DEA’s new database, released in July of this year, could serve as a valuable tool for pharmacies to cooperate with local city governments to track prescription trends on a local level. Accessing certain de-identified data through the database could allow avoidance of gridlock in accessing data by other means such as through electronic health record systems. The new data bank shows the top suppliers of opioids on a focused city-level. This mechanism offers the possibility of tracking and preventing abuse of opioid drugs, rather than responding in hindsight. A formal call for collaboration on a local level has not yet been made, but as retail pharmacies develop and improve their own initiatives to mitigate the opioid crisis, opportunities increase for meaningful collaboration to use this data to impact the crisis.

Furthermore, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) calls for pharmacists’ collaboration with prescribers. According to the CDC, “Establishing and maintaining collaborative working relationships improves patient outcomes.” While the CDC focuses on the collaboration with providers, the new databank might allow for data from pharmacies in the same community to be accessed and used to identify and address unique prescription trends in their communities. To address the opioid crisis at its root: knowing the statistics, understanding trends, and collaborating on a local level might be the needed pieces to reverse the problem. Although yet untried, the new databank may make this possible.

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** Disclaimer: Thoughts shared here do not constitute legal advice. Please consult with an attorney to discuss your legal issue.

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