Justice Department sues Rite Aid for hundreds of thousands of ‘unlawful’ prescriptions at height of opioid crisis


The US government has accused the pharmacy chain Rite Aid of knowingly filling hundreds of thousands of unlawful prescriptions for controlled substances during the height of the opioid crisis.

The accusation came in the form of an intervention by the justice department in a whistleblower lawsuit against the company, which has 2,200 pharmacies in 17 states.

“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,” associate attorney general Vanita Gupta said in a statement.

“These practices opened the floodgates for millions of opioid pills and other controlled substances to flow illegally out of Rite Aid’s stores,” she added.

The complaint alleges that between May 2014 and June 2019, Rite Aid knowingly filled 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,” the justice department said. They were filled despite clear “red flags” that indicated they were unlawful.

The prescriptions included combinations of highly abused opioids such as oxycodone and fentanyl, in excessive quantities, by Rite Aid pharmacists who had been “repeatedly identified internally as writing illegitimate prescriptions,” the department said in a statement.

The justice department accused Rite Aid of violating the federal False Claims Act by submitting false prescription claims to government health care programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

It said the company “compounded its failure to act” by “intentionally deleting internal notes about suspicious prescribers written by Rite Aid pharmacists and directing district managers to tell pharmacists ‘to be mindful of everything that is put in writing.’”

The justice department has joined a lawsuit filed by Rite Aid whistleblowers Andrew White, Mark Rosenberg, and Ann Wegelin, who filed an action in October 2019 under the False Claims Act, which allows private parties to sue on behalf of the United States for false claims and share in any recovery.

“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,” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. “That includes holding corporations, like Rite Aid, accountable for knowingly filling unlawful prescriptions for controlled substances.”

The opioid crisis began in the 1990s with the release of powerful new prescription drugs to treat chronic pain. Pharmaceutical companies promoted their new products with spurious claims that they were not as addictive as other opioids that came before. They became routinely overprescribed by doctors; it was not uncommon to see long lines outside pharmacies as people drove from miles around to pick up prescriptions.

Addiction soared and overdoses rose dramatically across the country. In 1994, the overdose death rate in the US was 4.8 deaths per 100,000 people. By 2015 it had more than tripled to 16.3 per 100,000. It has grown even higher since.

More than 107,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2021, now the highest on record and a 15 percent increase from 2020. The synthetic drug fentanyl was to blame for most of the deaths.

Many major US pharmacies have faced lawsuits for their alleged role in fuelling the opioid crisis. Last year CVS and Walgreens agreed to pay more than $10 billion to several states in a settlement of lawsuits brought against them.