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CVS and Walgreens have agreed to $10 billion opioid settlement


The two biggest pharmacy chains in the nation will pay more than $10 billion to settle lawsuits over the toll of opioids. CVS and Walgreens have agreed to pay what could be one of the last rounds of huge settlements after years of litigation - litigation over the drug industry's role in the overdose crisis. More than half a million deaths in the U.S. over the past 20 years have been linked to opioid overdoses.

Well, Sharon Terlep is covering this for The Wall Street Journal. Hi there. Welcome.

SHARON TERLEP: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: What were these companies accused of doing? Like, what was their role in all of this?

TERLEP: Sure. I mean, the core of the argument is that they ignored red flags, and they failed to prevent opioids from flowing into communities, you know, at huge levels.

KELLY: And is this settlement an admission of fault?

TERLEP: It is not at all. There's - both the companies have been clear that this is not an admission of guilt. And what the pharmacies say is that their pharmacists were filling prescriptions that were issued by doctors, so essentially doing their job.

KELLY: Right. OK. So the money that's been agreed - it's a lot - $10 billion. It will go to state governments, local governments, Native American tribal governments; not to individuals. Is that right?

TERLEP: Correct. It won't go to individuals. It can't go to state general funds. It will all go to these state-level governments. I mean, there's a lot that communities are talking about - things like medical assistance, job assistance - that eventually would reach people. But in terms of, you know, a chunk of cash landing in someone's bank account who is affected by this, that's not what's happening here.

KELLY: Among the question marks still out there is whether a third major pharmacist - Walmart - may eventually become part of this picture. What do you know about that?

TERLEP: Sure. I think everybody's waiting for a final word on Walmart. Walmart has been involved in some of the earlier settlements. They've certainly been involved in these lawsuits. And so we're waiting to see what, if any, deal they've come up with.

KELLY: And in terms of the two that are out there now and that you have - your reporting has confirmed - CVS and Walgreens - is this the end of the road for them or is there more litigation pending to do with the opioid epidemic?

TERLEP: They certainly hope it's the end of the road. But the situation with this settlement is that each entity has to decide whether to sign on or not sign on. And if they don't sign on, they could continue to pursue separate claims, which both the companies have said they would fight if that happens.

KELLY: OK. So one of the state government, local government could say, nope; I'm not in on this deal, and we're going to continue to pursue our own litigation?

TERLEP: Correct.

KELLY: OK. And where does this sit in the broader context of the myriad lawsuits that have been filed over opioids and the epidemic?

TERLEP: It's by far the biggest settlement for the pharmacies. Overall, it's smaller than the deal reached by Johnson & Johnson and drug distributors in 2021. That was a $25 billion deal. Interestingly, Purdue Pharma - they had a $6 billion payment, which was slightly bigger than CVS. And Purdue Pharma is, of course, the maker of OxyContin.

KELLY: Yeah. So what will you be watching for next?

TERLEP: Well, we'll be watching for Walmart for sure. And, you know, I think it's going to be really interesting to see how this money is spent. So I think we'll be really looking to see it - you know, what happens to this money now that it's out there and flowing into the state and local government?

KELLY: What's the range of options for how it could be spent?

TERLEP: I mean, it's a wide range. It's anything from paying for treatments to overdoses to paying for employment programs and education. And there's pretty wide latitude for how this money can be spent.

KELLY: That is Sharon Terlep of The Wall Street Journal sharing some of her reporting over this $10 billion settlement that has just been announced today. Sharon Terlep, thank you.

TERLEP: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.