US Sues Rite Aid for Ignoring Glaring ‘Red Flags’ in Opioid Prescriptions

US Sues Rite Aid for Ignoring Glaring ‘Red Flags’ in Opioid Prescriptions
US Sues Rite Aid for Ignoring Glaring ‘Red Flags’ in Opioid Prescriptions

The Department of Justice filed a lawsuit Monday against Rite Aidaccusing the pharmacy chain of filling hundreds of thousands of opioid prescriptions that had “obvious, and often multiple, red flags.”

Rite Aid is one of the largest pharmacy chains in the U.S., with more than 2,200 pharmacies in 17 states.

In its lawsuit, the DOJ claimed that Rite Aid violated the Controlled Substances Act by filling unlawful prescriptions for addictive drugs. And when the chain sought reimbursement from federal healthcare programs for these prescriptions, it violated the False Claims Act as well, the complaint said.

The DOJ alleged that from May 2014 through June 2019, Rite Aid knowingly filled at least hundreds of thousands of 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.”

Many of these prescriptions were for highly addictive and often abused drugs, such as fentanyl, oxycodone (brand name OxyContin), alprazolam (brand name Xanax), diazepam (brand name Valium), zolpidem (brand name Ambien) and carisoprodol (brand name Soma). The complaint flagged Rite Aid’s repeated filling of “trinity” prescriptions as especially problematic. The term refers to prescriptions for a trifecta of addictive drugs: opioids, benzodiazepines and muscle relaxants.

Further criticizing Rite Aid’s prescribing practices, the lawsuit alleged that the chain refilled patients’ opioid prescriptions early, even when they should have had plenty of pills left from their last visit. The complaint also said that Rite Aid  filled prescriptions for “extremely high doses and excessive quantities of opioids” that fueled dependence and addiction, as well as prescriptions from clinicians who had already been identified as “writing illegitimate prescriptions.”

The lawsuit accused Rite Aid of ignoring substantial evidence from multiple sources — including its pharmacists, distributor and own internal data — that its pharmacies were dispensing unlawful prescriptions. It also said that the pharmacy chain intentionally deleted internal notes that its pharmacists wrote about suspicious prescribers, as well as directed district managers to tell pharmacists “to be mindful of everything that is put in writing.”

The case stems from a a whistleblower lawsuit filed in 2019 by two Rite Aid employees who worked in pharmacies in North Carolina and West Virginia that the DOJ joined.

Rite Aid declined Medcity News‘ request for comment, citing litigation.

“The opioid crisis has exacted a heavy toll on communities across the United States,” Brian Boynton, head of the DOJ’s civil division, said in a statement. “Today’s complaint is an important reminder that the Justice Department will hold accountable any individuals or entities, including pharmacies, that fueled this terrible crisis.”

The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that an estimated 105,752 Americans died from overdoses in the 12 months ending October 2021 — the highest number of overdose deaths recorded in the U.S. in a single 12-month period. A majority of the overdoses reported during the period involved synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, the CDC said.

Last year, CVS and Walgreens agreed to pay a $10 billion settlement to settle all the opioid-related lawsuits brought against them by various states, cities and Native tribes. As part of the settlement, the pharmacy giants did not admit to wrongdoing.

Photo: Stuart Ritchie, Getty Images

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