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Pharmacy chains in Ohio will face trial over their role in the opioid crisis

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A civil trial begins today in a federal court in Cleveland, Ohio, over the opioid crisis. Name-brand pharmacy chains, including CVS and Walmart, are being sued. The Walton Family Foundation, created by the founders of Walmart, is a sponsor of NPR. We still cover Walmart like any company.

And NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: For decades, these big pharmacy chains have branded themselves as a comforting, familiar part of America's health care system. Here's a vintage Walmart pharmacy ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I try to bring that small-town drugstore into Walmart.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Well, it's nice to be known personally by somebody when you come in.

MANN: But these chains, with outlets on street corners and in malls all over the country, face thousands of lawsuits claiming they were reckless in the way they dispensed opioid pain pills, ignoring red flags about possibly risky prescriptions, even as more and more people became addicted.

MARK LANIER: What they did was too little too late.

MANN: Mark Lanier is one of the lead attorneys suing the pharmacies. He says these corporations failed for years to implement adequate safety and monitoring systems as required by federal law.

LANIER: This has been a problem since the 1990s. And these pharmacies really didn't start trying to screen even semi-effectively until after they'd already been slapped on the wrist.

MANN: The companies - CVS, Walgreens, Walmart and also a regional pharmacy chain called Giant Eagle - say they did nothing wrong. In statements sent to NPR, the company said doctors who prescribe the pills, federal regulators and others are at fault. But this case, involving lawsuits brought by two Ohio counties, is widely seen as a legal test.

Adam Zimmerman is an expert on opioid litigation at Loyola Law School. If the companies lose, he says, they could be forced to pay billions of dollars compensating victims of opioid addiction but also compensating governments and taxpayers that have footed the bill responding to the crisis.

ADAM ZIMMERMAN: Those damages include things like emergency room costs, dealing with and fighting crime related to opioids. Because the scope of the economic harm is so significant, the price that could be paid in any verdict could be quite significant.

MANN: Zimmerman says these companies face another risk - to their brands. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have died in this opioid epidemic. Other firms involved in the opioid business have chosen to settle out of court to avoid public trials, with payouts across the drug industry already expected to top $30 billion. But the pharmacy chains have chosen to fight. Even if they win, the trial beginning today could bring weeks of embarrassing testimony about their opioid practices.

Brian Mann, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAXON SHORE'S "SECRET FIRE, BINDING LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.