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CLEVELAND — Opening statements are scheduled for Monday afternoon in Cleveland in a federal court trial to determine whether retail pharmacy chains created a public nuisance in how they dispensed addictive painkillers in two Ohio counties where the opioid crisis continues to rage.

One of the attorneys representing Lake and Trumbull counties outside Cleveland has said the cost of abating the ongoing crisis in each county is $1 billion.

This will be the first time pharmacy companies, in this case CVS, Walgreens, Giant Eagle and Walmart, have gone to trial to defend themselves. The trial, which is expected to last around six weeks, could set the tone for similar claims against retail pharmacy chains by government entities across the U.S. going forward.

U.S. District Judge Dan Polster will preside over the trial. Close to 3,000 lawsuits filed in federal courts have been consolidated under Polster’s supervision.

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Plaintiffs’ attorneys say around 80 million prescription painkillers were dispensed in Trumbull County between 2012 and 2016, 400 for every county resident and 61 million pills were dispensed in Lake County during that five-year period, 265 pills for every resident.

Attorneys for the pharmacy chains CVS, Walgreens, Walmart and Giant Eagle, say the companies didn’t manufacture the drugs and their pharmacies were filling prescriptions written by physicians for patients with a legitimate medical need.

Rite-Aid settled with the two counties for an undisclosed amount in August.

Pharmacy attorneys also argue the companies followed and exceeded guidelines established by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the state of Ohio in how their stores were supplied with pain pills.

CVS in a statement said licensed wholesalers, not the company, distributed painkillers to its pharmacies and that it’s a “leader in the fight against prescription opioid abuse.” The company also shifted blame for the crisis.

“Since 2013, the DEA has refused to share with pharmacies the names of any doctors whose opioid prescriptions it believes are problematic,” the statement said. “Many of these doctors continue to be licensed by the DEA to prescribe opioid medications.”

Attorneys for Illinois-based Walgreens, say the Lake and Trumbull counties are using “confused and contradictory legal theories against other defendants before they landed on the idea to sue retail pharmacy chains.”

Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle in a trial brief said the company not only complied “with all laws and regulations designed to prevent diversion, it actively assisted law enforcement in their efforts to prevent diversion.”

Attorneys for Walmart said their stores dispensed only a small percentage of the pain medication prescribed in Lake and Trumbull and said the lawsuits “fail to distinguish legitimate from potentially illegitimate prescriptions.” 

The trial will be the fourth in the U.S. this year to test claims brought by governments against part of the drug industry over the toll of prescription painkillers. Verdicts or judgments have not been reached in the others thus far.

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