Walgreens will pay San Francisco nearly $230 million to settle a case over the pharmacy chain's distribution of opioids, San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu announced Wednesday.
The city will receive $229 million over the next 14 years, with the majority of the funds coming in the first eight years, Chiu's office said. The settlement is the largest amount any city has received from a single company in opioid-related litigation, according to Chiu, but it falls far short of $8.1 billion San Francisco sought.
"Cities like San Francisco have shouldered much of the burden of the opioid epidemic," Chiu said in a statement. The "historic agreement ensures Walgreens is held accountable for the crisis they fueled and our city receives appropriate resources to combat the opioid crisis and bring relief to our communities."
San Francisco in 2018 sued Walgreens, Purdue Pharma and other opioid manufacturers and distributors over their role in the opioid epidemic. In 2022, a judge found thatto the city's opioid epidemic, writing, "The evidence showed that Walgreens did not provide its pharmacists with sufficient time, staffing, or resources to perform due diligence on these prescriptions."
"Walgreens disputes liability and there is no admission of fault in the settlement agreement," Fraser Engerman, Walgreens' senior director for external relations, said in a statement. "We never manufactured or marketed opioids, nor did we distribute them to 'pill mills' and internet pharmacies."
Between 2014 and 2020, opioid-related overdose deaths in the city grew by nearly 500%, Chiu's office said.
A quarter of emergency room visits to the city's Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center currently are drug related, some 30 cases a day, according to Dr. Christopher Colwell, the hospital's chief of emergency medicine. Colwell testified in federal court on behalf of the city, noting that patients with drug-related emergencies come from all walks of life.
The city attorney previously received settlements from manufacturers Endo, Allergan, Teva, Johnson & Johnson; pharmacy chains CVS and Walmart; and distributors McKesson, Cardinal and AmerisourceBergen.
"While this may seem like a sizable amount, the (nearly) $230 million settlement amount pales in comparison to the profits earned and the costs imposed on the city and its inhabitants from what the judge described as a '15-year failure' to adequately monitor and review opioid prescriptions. Walgreen walks away from this still disputing liability and without any promise that it will substantially change the way in which it dispenses drugs to put patients before profits," according to University of Maryland professor of law Lisa Vertinsky, who analyses large class action settlements.
San Francisco's opioid settlement is one of 3,300 cases that have awarded states, counties or cities more than $54 billion to date, according to the Seattle-based Opioid Settlement Tracker, which has compared these opioid cases to the $246 billion that major tobacco companies agreed to pay after 46 states sued them in the 1990s.
"Localities' success in the opioid litigation provides a stark contrast to their virtual non-participation in the big tobacco litigation," according to Christine Minhee, the founder of OpioidSettlementTracker.com. "And on the whole, states and localities that choose to remain in litigation ... end up with greater monies for their abatement coffers than the majority of jurisdictions that opt for the security and certainty of national settlement accords. This has exciting potential for public health, because localities are oftentimes better suited to invest in the harm reduction models that truly save lives but might get missed by state legislatures."
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