PASCO COUNTY, Fla. — More than a thousand local governments across the country are suing drug makers – and even chain pharmacies, like CVS and Walgreens – in federal court in the next battlefront in the war on the opioid epidemic.
The first opiate lawsuit, brought by Cleveland and two counties in Ohio, heads to trial in September. A trial date has not been set yet for a larger batch of lawsuits, representing about 500 local governments, including Pasco and Pinellas counties.
Lawyers for those cases tell ABC Action News they expect to add CVS and Walgreens to those court complaints.
In all, more than 1,400 local governments have filed lawsuits in federal court, taking on opioid drug makers and manufacturers in a move reminiscent of past court battles against big tobacco.
In Florida, Attorney General Pam Bondi is also suing seven drug makers and five drug distributors, including Walgreens and CVS, arguing the companies should be held accountable “for having created and exacerbated the opioid crisis.”
Opioids killed more than 5,700 people in Florida in 2016 alone, according to court filings.
I-Team Reporter Kylie McGivern went to one of the hardest hit areas, according to Bondi’s lawsuit and discovered the overdose death rate in Pasco County is 30 percent higher than the state average.
‘Like a war’
Law enforcement told the I-Team that U.S. 19 in Pasco County – ground zero for the county’s opioid battle – serves as a major opioid artery, pumping drugs into communities that hug the highway, including Holiday, New Port Richey and Hudson.
“It’s almost like a war,” said Captain Mike Jenkins of the Pasco Sheriff’s Office. “The Hudson U.S. 19 corridor – that is one of the areas where we see a significant number of overdoses and overdose deaths.”
Data obtained by the I-Team shows the number of overdoses in Pasco County this year are on pace to top those from last year, when the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office saw 348 overdoses.
In October, the county has already reported 344 overdoses.
Pasco and Pinellas counties – known as District 6 in the state’s medical examiner office – led the state with the most methadone-related opioid deaths last year, according to a new report.
The region was second only to the Jacksonville area for oxycodone and hydrocodone-related deaths.
Tara Mannelli said she isn’t surprised.
“It’s bad out here,” said Mannelli. “Like all you do is see people up and down 19, walking and riding bikes and usually it’s people that are trying to get their fix on.”
The I-Team met Mannelli along U.S. 19, as she stopped to put down her bags and take a break in a parking lot.
Mannelli said she is homeless and began her struggle with addiction eight years ago after a car accident.
She told the I-Team, “21 years old – I was prescribed Roxicodone...That’s what I started out using.”
Mannelli said she’s twice overdosed on fentanyl – the same drug that killed her father when she was 19-years-old.
When asked how bad the drug use is in the area, and activity along US 19, Mannelli immediately signed and tilted her head back.
“It’s crazy,” Mannelli said about the drug use along U.S. 19. “It’s rough because it’s everywhere.”
Overdose deaths up in Pasco County
Capt. Jenkins said the state’s recent work to shut down pill mills and prevent doctor shopping helped, but it also created a void.
“In creating that void, many people turned to other drugs, such as heroin and fentanyl,” said Jenkins.
Jenkins said overdoses have been on the decline since July and they've been able to save more lives with the help of Narcan.
But more than 160 people died of overdoses last year, according to the Pasco Sheriff’s Office.
“Our deaths… in 2017 actually matched the same number of deaths that we had during the pill epidemic… in 2011," said Jenkins.
The real numbers are likely even higher, because the Pasco Sheriff’s Office doesn’t track cities in the county with their own police department, such as New Port Richey.
That’s the city where Jaron Hopper – known to his family by the nickname “Scooby” – died of a fentanyl overdose last year.
Hopper said her son’s struggles with addiction ended with a 2:30 a.m. phone call on Sept. 9, 2017.
Hopper tearfully recalled the phone call from her son-in-law.
“I said, ‘It’s Jaron.’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And I just prayed, I said, ‘Please God, just let him be in jail. Let him be in the hospital,’” said Hopper.
Hopper now uses Facebook and YouTube to tell her son’s story and mails bracelets across the country to inspire others to stay sober.
“My son’s addiction began when he was about 14-years-old,” said his mother Danette Hopper. “Him and his friend got prescription pain medicine out of the friend’s dad’s medicine cabinet.”
Hopper said her son would later fill some of his opioid prescriptions at a Walgreens in Pasco County.
Florida sues Walgreens, CVS
A Walgreens in nearby Hudson is named in Florida’s opioid lawsuit, which accuses the local chain pharmacy of buying 2.2 million opioid pills to fill prescriptions in 2011 alone.
That’s 15 pills a month for every man, woman and child in a town with a population of just 12,000.
Florida’s lawsuit against CVS and Walgreens says the companies “played a critical role knowing that the volume was so high, there had to be something wrong – that billions of dollars of opioid distribution in Florida simply didn’t match up with medical need,” said Dr. Jay Wolfson, a health policy expert at University of Southern Florida.
“In some respects, it’s reminiscent of the suit that was filed against the tobacco industry many years ago,” said Wolfson.
But it’s unclear if Florida prosecutors will see the same success as they had against big tobacco.
Wolfson said the portion of the lawsuit focused on drug makers “good teeth in it,” but he told ABC Action News he’s unsure if the same arguments the drug distributors – like CVS and Walgreens – will hold up in court and called prosecutors’ decision to target the chain pharmacies a “public relations gimmick.”
Walgreens declined comment on Florida’s lawsuit and CVS said the lawsuit is “without merit.”
Full statement from CVS:
We bel ieve the state of Florida’s addition of CVS Pharmacy to this lawsuit is without merit. We are committed to the highest standards of ethics and business practices, including complying with all federal and state laws governing the dispensing of controlled substance prescriptions, and CVS is dedicated to helping reduce prescription drug abuse and diversion. We also have stringent policies, procedures and tools to help ensure that our pharmacists properly exercise their professional responsibility to evaluate controlled substance prescriptions before filling them.
Over the past several years, CVS has taken numerous actions to strengthen our existing safeguards to help address the nation’s opioid epidemic, which has contributed to a 30% reduction in the amount of controlled substances that our retail pharmacies dispense. This includes millions of hours training our pharmacy teams about responsibilities and best practices regarding controlled substances.
Our commitment to preventing prescription drug abuse also extends to our patient and youth education efforts; an industry-leading program to increase access to the overdose-reversal medication, naloxone; and a drug collection program including in-store kiosks as well as donation of units to local police departments nationwide.
CVS Health is strongly committed to working with the DEA and other regulatory and law enforcement agencies to help reduce prescription drug abuse and diversion while ensuring access to appropriate, effective pain medications for patients who need them.