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Rite Aid filled unlawful prescriptions that added to opioid epidemic, feds say

Article

Department of Justice joins whistleblower lawsuit against pharmacy giant.

Pharmacy giant Rite Aid Corp. allegedly filled thousands of unlawful prescriptions that contributed to the proliferation of the opioid epidemic, according to federal investigators.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has intervened in a whistleblower lawsuit filed under the federal False Claims Act (FCA) against Rite Aid, which now has more than 2,330 stores and 6,300 pharmacists in 17 states. From May 2014 to June 2019, Rite Aid pharmacists “knowingly filled at least hundreds of thousands of unlawful prescriptions for controlled substances that lacked a legitimate medical purpose, were not for a medically accepted indication, or were not issued in the usual course of professional practice,” according to DOJ.

“The Justice Department is using every tool at our disposal to confront the opioid epidemic that is killing Americans and shattering communities across the country,” Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a statement. “That includes holding corporations, like Rite Aid, accountable for knowingly filling unlawful prescriptions for controlled substances.”

The prescriptions included:

  • “The Trinity,” a highly abused drug combination with an opioid, a benzodiazepine, and carisoprodol.
  • Excessive quantities of opioids including oxycodone and fentanyl.
  • Prescriptions from prescribers that Rite Aid pharmacists repeatedly identified internally for writing illegitimate prescriptions.

DOJ claims Rite Aid also violated the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The company’s pharmacists filled prescriptions despite “red flags” that the orders were unlawful, ignoring “substantial evidence from multiple sources” including pharmacists, its distributor, and internal data.

The company also had staff intentionally delete internal notes about suspicious prescribers, despite directives to district managers to tell pharmacists “to be mindful of everything that is put in writing,” according to DOJ.

“We allege that Rite Aid filled hundreds of thousands of prescriptions that did not meet legal requirements,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a statement. “According to our complaint, Rite Aid’s pharmacists repeatedly filled prescriptions for controlled substances with obvious red flags, and Rite Aid intentionally deleted internal notes about suspicious prescribers. These practices opened the floodgates for millions of opioid pills and other controlled substances to flow illegally out of Rite Aid’s stores.”

The federal complaint, filed in U.S. District Court-Northern District of Ohio, names Rite Aid’s corporate headquarters in Philadephia and its subsidiaries in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. It follows the whistleblower lawsuit filed in October 2019 by three former Rite Aid pharmacy workers.

“Pharmacies, physicians, corporations, and other health care entities that have contributed to the proliferation of opioids in our communities and the tragic loss of life from overdose deaths must answer for their role in the crisis we now face,” Ohio Northern District First Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle M. Baeppler said in the DOJ statement. “This complaint is a continuation of the Justice Department’s commitment to hold accountable those entities that aggravated and profited from the opioid crisis.”

Rite Aid reported revenues of almost $6.1 billion for the third quarter of 2022, the most recent financial results posted at the company’s website. In that report, the company projected 2022 total revenues of up to $24 billion, with retain pharmacy segment revenues up to $17.6 billion and pharmacy services segment revenues up to $6.4 billion.

The communications staff at Rite Aid's corporate headquarters declined to comment due because the issue is a litigation matter, according to an email to Medical Economics.

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